News & Politics

2008’s Washingtonians of the Year: Esther Park

Photograph by Matthew Worden

“I know what it’s like to have a mother handling six children and no food, shoes, or medical care,” says Esther Park, who was six when her father died in South Korea. The family lived in one room. At the communal well, young Esther would see many women suffering black eyes and bruises.

Now, at the Korean Community Service Center of Greater Washington, “women who knock on our door have the same story,” she says. Shame, poverty, lack of education, and a cultural tendency to keep troubles within the family come together to maintain a cycle of despair.

When Park began volunteering for Annandale-based KCSC in 1999, the nonprofit was adrift and, like its constituency, largely isolated; its seven employees sometimes went unpaid. Since she became director in 2002, it has grown to 16 staff and hundreds of volunteers with a $900,000 budget. KCSC has reached out, joining other nonprofits in programs for teens, day laborers, and more. It has won support and praise from foundations. “We are the safety net for Korean-speaking people,” she says.

Park has gone from teaching psychology in Atlanta to directing the nonprofit’s youth and family programs to launching new programs, connections, even satellite offices in Gaithersburg and Riverdale. Its clientele can get help with job training and placement, heathcare, housing, citizenship, legal needs, and English classes. Counseling is a specialty—especially in parenting, marriage, and reduction of domestic violence.

KCSC “has been critical to the success of the Korean Senior Information Line,” says Sharon Lynn of the Fairfax Area Agency on Aging. “I’ve found Esther to be a strong leader eager to create partnerships.” So have the thousands of residents she serves.

See all of the 2008 Washingtonians of the Year