This spring, renowned local philanthropist Betty Kwan Chinn, who has spent the past 40 years tirelessly serving Humboldt County’s homeless population, will receive an honorary doctorate from Cal Poly Humboldt.
Chinn received the news on Monday from university President Tom Jackson, and when we reached her by phone this afternoon she said she can still barely believe it.
“It’s just something that you never dream or think about,” she said.
Chinn said the honor is especially meaningful because she never attended a day of school in her own life. As a child, Chinn and her family were violently forced from their home in China’s Guangdong province during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.
Over the next four years, Chinn endured “physical and mental abuse, torture, and near starvation until her arduous escape to Hong Kong,” as Jackson noted in a message to the Cal Poly community.
She immigrated to the United States and later married an HSU physics professor named Leung Chinn, with whom she had two sons. Chinn still longed for an education for herself but felt that her opportunity had past.
“When you marry and have children, you embarrass your own children if [their] mom goes to school,” she said.
Throughout her many years of service, Chinn has often told people, “I don’t do paperwork.” It’s a blithe statement that obscured the chagrin she felt around her struggles with literacy.
“I say that with sadness and embarrassment, to cover up myself,” she said.
Receiving an honorary college degree feels like pulling a thorn out of her skin, she said, adding that she sees the value of education all around her. Her husband has his PhD; one of her sons is an assistant dean while the other is a surgeon. Her daughter-in-law is an accountant.
“Even my grandson is better than me,” Chinn said with a laugh. “He was reading a story I couldn’t read. You see how much is lost.”
In 2010, Chinn was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal, the second highest civilian honor in the country. It was hung around her neck by former President Barack Obama himself. Chinn said she felt like that award was for her work and for the homeless people she has served over the years, but the honorary doctorate feels different.
“This is for my work and also my personal,” she said. “It really gets into my heart and soul, I tell you.”
After getting a copy of Jackson’s statement on Monday, Chinn forwarded it to people in her hometown back in China. Soon, the messages of congratulations began pouring in. She heard from a teacher and the principal at her hometown high school, plus students and even the region’s governor, who expressed pride in this “daughter of the village,” Chinn said.
“I got over 300 emails in one day,” she said. “So [many] phone calls yesterday I had to shut off my phone. … It’s really emotional. Yesterday I couldn’t work.”
She has also gotten messages of congratulations from Cal Poly Humboldt professors and students, some of whom said they’re looking forward to seeing her at May’s commencement ceremony. Chinn laughed with delight at the thought of herself in a cap and gown.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “Amazing.”
Here’s Jackson’s message from Monday:
Dear Campus Community:
I am happy to announce that the University will confer an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters to local philanthropist and hero Betty Kwan Chin at this May’s Commencement ceremony. Ms. Chinn will be the first recipient of an honorary degree from Cal Poly Humboldt and one of only 13 in the University’s history.
Ms. Chinn is exemplary of service before self and upholds the University’s vision of a more just and equitable society. Turning her personal hardships into a passion, she has spent the past four decades working to restore hope and dignity to those experiencing homelessness.
In 2010, Ms. Chin was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal, the second highest civilian honor in the country, by former President Barack Obama, who praised her effort and success in “renewing America’s promise by serving those in need.”
Ms. Chinn’s own experience with homelessness began at age seven, when her family was violently forced from their home in China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. She endured untold physical and mental abuse, torture, and near starvation until her arduous escape to Hong Kong four years later. After immigrating to the United States, she took refuge with relatives in California, later marrying retired Humboldt Physics Professor Leung Chinn, and raising two sons in Eureka.
Her life changed again one day when she noticed that one of her son’s classmates was living out of the family car. Ms. Chinn started sending extra food to school to share with the family and her service to the community began.
Today, the Betty Kwan Chinn Homeless Foundation consists of Chinn’s Day Center offering transitional housing, and employment and family services; Betty’s House, 32-bed family shelter; Betty’s Blue Angel Village, a temporary housing shelter built from shipping containers; Betty’s Annex, a women and children’s center that open during the pandemic; Betty’s Showers, a public shower facility; and Betty’s Blue Angel Outreach, which provides wraparound services to hard-to-reach individuals need of specialty services.
Ms. Chinn is a visionary leader and an inspiration to the entire Humboldt community. She calls every day an opportunity to give back, a gift in itself. She is a role model for our students and for us all, proving that one person can indeed change the world.
Tom Jackson, Jr.