May 16, 2018
Born in a refugee camp at the Thailand-Burma border, April Moo spent 15 years in a world most of us will never encounter, let alone understand. This unique perspective lends her the kind of compassion and understanding so necessary for her job as a social work intern with United Way’s Every Student, Every Day initiative.
“My parents wanted us to get an education and a better life. When I came to this country, I didn’t know much English; it was very limited and I could barely communicate.” But she persevered and became the first in her family — and the first among all the resettled refugees from Burma in San Diego — to graduate high school. It would be the first of many firsts to follow.
As a 15-year-old at Crawford High School, April felt responsible to her fellow Karen* refugees, helping to translate documents, write letters, and navigate local systems. “Seeing my parents struggle with English and [struggle] to find jobs, I really wanted to give back to my community. I wanted to do something for immigrants and refugees.”
This month, after she graduates from SDSU, she’ll continue her trailblazing educational efforts. As she pursues her Master’s degree in social work, she’ll claim another first. But it wasn’t an easy path. Her own struggles in creating a life for herself here have fueled her desire to help others, including the students in the Lemon Grove school where she interns.
“Most of the kids speak fluent English, and I have to be careful about what I’m going to say, if they will understand me, since I’m an English learner,” she smiles. “They never question me, so I assume I do okay. They are curious about me — what language I speak, where I come from — but because of the diversity in this community, they’re very open minded.”
April believes strongly in Every Student Every Day’s ability to shine a light on absences for those who don’t realize the impact of missing school.
Though April herself was never absent in school — “not even a day” — she does remember one instance when the school didn’t realize she was in a different classroom and mistakenly marked her absent. An automatic call went out to her mother, who spoke little English but understood it.
“As soon as I got home from school that day,” April recalls, smiling, “my mother said, ‘You were absent. Tomorrow, I’m going to follow you!’”
“Following” is another way to refer to the regular attention April gives her students. In addition to talking with them individually, she also meets with her students in a weekly group to reinforce the importance of everyday attendance. “One little girl, Megan, was surprised at how much school she had missed. I told her, ‘Don’t worry. I’m here to help.’”
At first, April was nervous to talk to Megan’s father, but he was grateful she’d called, and she relaxed. “If I hadn’t reached out, he wouldn’t have realized how bad it was.” In one month, Megan had racked up more than 30 tardies and at least 10 absences. “She was late because she helps her younger brother get to school in the morning.” Her father drove to three different schools to drop off each of his children. By that time, Megan would be late. “I recommended he ask a neighbor or relative to walk with her, and that opened his mind and he allowed it. Now, Megan’s old enough to walk by herself, though sometimes she’s accompanied by her older siblings.”
Megan’s attendance has improved dramatically—only three absences in the last six months. “I explained to Megan how being at school can help her become the person she wants to be.” Megan wants to travel the world and become a business woman. “She told me she wants to help immigrants and refugees. I told her I was a refugee, too.”
“I’m very thankful I didn’t grow up here,” April explains. “I had the struggle and because of that, what I see here in the school ... I can relate to them. I am not judgmental because of my own experiences. I am more understanding.”
This compassion is one of the many reasons why students and parents, teachers and principals, all trust April. She wants her students and their families to understand the importance of attendance as a path to ensuring future success. Clearly, whether it’s her social work with Every Student, Every Day or volunteering for the Karen Community at the state or local level, April Moo has found her calling. “I’m very passionate about helping people,” she concludes.
*The Karen have fought for independent recognition as an ethnic group within Burma since World War II. Karen – pronounced Ka-REN – refers to both the language and the people.
By Sue Greenberg
UWSD Staff Writer