Two thousand NYCHA youngsters who participate in the Partners in Reading literacy program got a special gift this holiday season as Bear U.S.A., Inc. donated down jackets to them during an event November 28th at Rutgers Community Center.
The gift from the Hong family, which owns Bear U.S.A., was a way of thanking the City of New York for helping them during a very difficult time. In the summer of 1992, a riot in the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights temporarily ended the dream of the Hongs, who came to the U.S. from Seoul, Korea. The violence left their sneaker and sporting goods store on the corner of 145th Street and Broadway a shambles, with 10,000 pairs of sneakers lost to looters.
But the neighborhood spirit was stronger than the Hong’s storefront window. In the aftermath, neighbors rallied together to clean up the broken glass and offered cash to help the Hongs re-establish their business. The Hong family plight even caught the attention of the City’s Mayor, David N. Dinkins, who presented the family with a $25,000 check from an anonymous donor. When they accepted the gift at a press conference that year, Andrew Hong and his wife Susan made a vow to someday return the kindness that was shown to them.
That was 13 years ago, and today the business that was launched with those donations, Bear, U.S.A., Inc. is world-famous for its cold-weather gear. Although Andrew Hong the head of the family has passed away, Mrs. Susan Hong and her three sons made good on the promise by presenting Bear down jackets to New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) children from the Partners In Reading (PIR) program at the Rutgers Community Center on the Lower East Side. She also had a jacket for one very important guest — David Dinkins — who appeared to be only too pleased to help the Hongs bring their story full circle.
The giveaway was made possible by a collaboration between the Hongs and the nonprofit Korean American Community Foundation (KACF). It was the first of five such events that will continue to take place over the course of the next week throughout the New York City, resulting in the distribution of 2,000 hooded down jackets to young Partners In Reading.
PIR is a collaboration between the Mayor’s Office, NYCHA and the Department of Education, currently serving approximately 2,000 children in the first, second and third grades at 120 locations on NYCHA property. The overall goal of the program is to improve the children’s literacy skills through a combination of classroom instruction, homework help, individual tutoring, interactive projects, and outreach to parents.
ABC News correspondent JuJu Chang, who is on the Board of the KACF, served as Mistress of Ceremonies for the event. "The looting cost the Hong family three-quarters of a million dollars, 13 years of hard work and a dream,” she said to a gymnasium filled with children wearing the green, red and blue jackets. "Bear U.S.A. today is donating $200,000 worth of down jackets. It’s about healing, giving back. It’s about people coming together to fulfill a promise. Today is the happy ending."
Wearing a black down jacket with a fur collar, Mayor Dinkins spoke of his love of children and emphasized once again that the important part of the Hong’s story was their desire to give back. "I hope when other people hear of this they will think of giving back too," the former Mayor said. "[The Hong Family] couldn’t do better than doing this through the New York City Housing Authority; they’re all over the City."
NYCHA’s Vice Chairman Earl Andrews, Jr., spoke about the night of the riots before the legacy of Mr. Dinkins, reminding the audience that the former Mayor coined the term, "a glorious mosaic," for New York City. "He came at a time when the city needed to be brought together." In thanking the Hongs and the KACF for choosing NYCHA residents as the recipients of their gratitude, Mr. Andrews remarked, "People who live in public housing don’t make a lot of money and don’t have a lot of things — they’ll appreciate it." Board Member JoAnna Aniello was also present.
KACF President Sung Chul Whang described the mission of the three-year-old organization as raising funds to provide social services to Korean-Americans and to help serve as a bridge between the Korean American population and the community at large.
Speaking in Korean, with her son Robert serving as translator, Mrs. Hong recalled the emotion she and her husband experienced at the outpouring of support they received. "Our hearts were filled with overflowing gratitude," she said. She also thanked each of her sons for the roles they played in creating the Secaucus, N.J.-based Bear U.S.A.. "I am able to stand here today because of this great country. Thank you all from the bottom of my heart."
Another son, Thomas Hong, closed the event, vowing that the Hongs would continue to supporting Partners In Reading, NYCHA and the KACF in developing community-based businesses for entrepreneurs.