Eunice Gonzaga, Operations Director in our Housing Services program, is a Korean-American born and raised in Los Angeles, a daughter of immigrants. She often struggled with her identity throughout childhood. “I have experienced identity confusion, racism, and unfairness, yet still felt the feeling of freedom of being a regular, American kid… I grew up unsure of how to feel, look, and behave. Should I speak Korean, my first language, or English? Should I skip out on kimchi fried rice and settle for pizza at school? Should I be out in the sun more to get rid of my pale skin?”
These questions became existential as she realized the challenges and sacrifice of her parents. Her mother defected from North Korea. Her father is South Korean. They immigrated to the U.S., where Eunice’s mother taught herself English and held down two to three jobs at a time and her father worked his way up to General Manager of a shipping warehouse. “Society had branded us Model Minorities as a reward for working very hard and demonstrating the status quo,” she recalls. “So why were we still on food stamps? Why did we not have nice clothes? Why were we still not able to buy our own home? Why have we still not achieved The American Dream?”
These questions then became a life’s work.
After 7 years in Food and Beverage operations and a hospitality management position at a country club in Corona, California from 2005 to 2012, Eunice realized this wasn’t demonstrating what her parents had modeled for her. “I needed to do more – be more intentional of my purpose, be a challenger of the status quo, and be louder for the voiceless. Quite frankly, I was tired of serving expensive, quality steaks to wealthy consumers who constantly complained about food … and then taking it back to be discarded. All I could think about was people outside this restaurant who may not have the privilege to eat three meals a day, let alone just one.”
And so, she charged ahead, completing her Master of Social Work degree and applied her management skills to be a champion for change. And never looked back.
First, as a Site Coordinator for Communities In Schools, she provided case management and worked with homeless children and families in Title I schools, later transitioning into School Social Work in Elementary, Middle, and High Schools. Then, on a vacation, she fell in love with Seattle and moved in 2017. For over 3 years, Eunice was the Supportive Services Manager for Imagine Housing in East King County, which enhanced her focus, knowledge, and advocacy of housing needs and barriers to housing stabilization in Washington State. Originally serving as Regional Director of VOAWW’s Disability Services, she was drawn back to housing and homelessness, assuming the role of Operations Director in Housing in the thick of pandemic rental assistance. “Now we are at the end, and it’s great to see how many households we’ve served and people we’ve impacted. We are branching out to other programs like City of Lynnwood/Snohomish County Rapid Re-housing, Maud’s House Rapid Re-housing, City of Everett pallet shelters, and refugee stabilization.”
Still, she reminds herself of the opportunities her parents offered by their hard work. Eunice hopes she makes them proud and wonders, “what my son [age 6] is going to do. Is he going to make an impact in his community?” The obedient, quiet, and respectful child bloomed into a full-time working mother of four, with one on the way, seeking work/life balance. With sights once set on becoming a CEO of a nonprofit, Eunice is now content to “be a leader making an impact. I don’t need a title to be a leader.”