Kwangja Kwon: Seeking Fresh Perspectives
by Mary Anne Casey
For 19 years, Kwangja Kwon has worked for the Korean Service Center, in the basement of a high rise just off Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis. She and her husband left their home in South Korea over 20 years ago, so he could attend graduate school.
She found a job here—and her life’s passion—helping others age well. Kwangja runs the Korean Service Center’s senior programs, including an assisted living program, a community garden, and dining services.
Making New Connections
Kwangja loves her work, but a few years ago she felt she needed a fresh perspective. She said she had spent so many years with her head down, working in the basement, that she wanted to get out and learn from others. So she signed up for Evolve, the Vital Aging Network’s eight-month leadership program. She wanted to make new connections and be inspired.
Each Evolve participant is asked to plan and implement a civic leadership project. Kwangja decided to try to expand the Korean Service Center’s assisted living program. It is a model that has received national attention. It is specifically designed to meet the needs of Korean-speaking elders who reside in Minneapolis Public Housing. Residents receive Korean lunches and dinners, weekly visits from a housekeeper and a nurse, daily help with medications, and daily offerings of social activities and exercise. Staff speak English and Korean and are available day and night. Kwangja says that although the program was designed for Korean-speaking elders, non-Korean Asians choose it because it is sensitive to culture and offers Asian foods, rather than hotdish or lasagna.
Expanding Korean Assisted Living
The assisted living program serves 40 people and always has a waiting list. It could serve more people. The challenge is finding space. For her Evolve project, Kwangja prepared a proposal and met with administrators of the next-door Riverside Plaza, to explore the possibility of expansion into their buildings. Unfortunately, those buildings are going through major renovations, so expansion plans are on hold.
Although the outcome wasn’t what she had hoped for, Kwangja sees her project as a success. She envisioned something new and, with the help of others in Evolve, she took steps to make it happen. She learned from the process and has a better understanding of the obstacles. And, she met her personal goal. She continues to connect with the friends she met through her Evolve.
What’s next? Kwangja is accepting a huge opportunity. In September, she and her husband will move to Melbourne, Australia for a year sabbatical. After that, she hopes to return to the Korean Service Center and work until she is 70. She loves the people she serves and knows she makes a difference. Now that is vital aging!