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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Elaine Givenchy Woo

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-06-27

Elaine Givenchy Woo of Saskatchewan feels at home in Spanish Harlem.

"I grew up in a small town that was multicultural," Ms. Woo, a teacher at the East Harlem Tutorial Program, said. "From an early age I was comfortable with people from different societies. I took it for granted that the world was diverse, and that such diversity helped us gain wonderful experiences."

She grew up in Moose Jaw, in the northeastern Canadian province of Saskatchewan, where her father Jack owned - and still runs - a popular restaurant, Uptown Cafe. He and her mother Stella Chan encouraged their three children - Elaine, the oldest, and Michelle and Jayson - to look at the world beyond the precincts of their community.

"One of the biggest words I spelled as a girl was 'Saskatchewan,'" Ms. Woo said. "And then here I was, traveling to Hong Kong and other parts of the world with intriguing names."

At home, Ms. Woo served as the coordinator of events for the Moose Jaw Multicultural Center. More than 17 nationalities participated in its annual festival, and Ms. Woo's job involved supervising various ethnic pavilions, and helping stage dances and other activities.

"You can imagine how exciting that was - dancers from Ukraine, China, and India," she said. "Food from India. Music from Scotland. A score of languages and accents. It sometimes seemed that the whole world had descended on our little Saskatchewan valley."

That early cultural cross fertilization prepared Ms. Woo for her life in New York. So did a two-month sojourn in Brazil, where she was part of a Canadian youth delegation whose mission was to persuade young Brazilians to travel to Canada for higher studies and perhaps to eventually settle in a natural resource-rich land of 3.8 million square miles but with a population of barely 33 million.

After graduating with a business major from the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, she applied for an internship in marketing with a New York company, TDI (now CBS Outdoor). Her employers were so impressed that they offered her a fulltime job as a national account manager, one that took her back to her native Canada.

Ms. Woo spent three years in Toronto, sedulously cultivating clients such as Budget Rent A Car, Universal Music, Clinique, Estee Lauder, and the retail giant Hudson's Bay Company.

One of her mentors in Toronto, Bernard Peterson, moved to the Village Voice in New York, and he persuaded Ms. Woo to join the organization. Then a few weeks ago, she was hired by New York magazine as an account manager.

So how did Ms. Woo become a volunteer in Spanish Harlem?

"I was on a bus one evening and spotted an ad," she said. "Through the modern magic of the cell phone, I called the number that was given on that ad, and I was asked to come immediately to an office on Second Avenue and 105th street."

The bright blue building that Ms. Woo entered was the headquarters of the East Harlem Tutorial Program. The not-for-profit organization originated in 1958 when a woman named Helen Webber founded an informal after-school reading group for children in her East Harlem apartment. (In addition to the East Harlem Tutorial program, Ms. Webber and her family were to found East Harlem Protestant Parish, and Edwin Gould Academy.)

Ms. Woo was struck by EHTP's goal of "Making a Difference, One Child At A Time." As a young woman who grew up in relative affluence in Canada, she was also struck by the fact that families with low incomes weren't likely to get adequate access to organized out-of-school programs in their communities. And Ms. Woo was struck by the fact that even acclaimed organizations such as EHTP were always in severe need of volunteer teachers.

I was fortunate in my own life in that I'd always had older people help me learn," Ms. Woo said. "People sometimes went out of their way to educate me. Perhaps that's why I've always had this desire to get involved in community work, a really strong desire to give back to the community."

The East Harlem community wouldn't ordinarily be part of her social or professional radius. A resident of the Upper East Side, Ms. Woo leads the life of ambitious - and successful - executive, and one would imagine that finding time for volunteer work each week might be taxing.

But there's Orville Laing to keep her going.

"I started tutoring him two years ago when he was in the sixth grade. I worked through math, English and social studies with him," Ms. Woo said. "In fact, he and I both did home work - Orville did the work assigned by his school, and I boned up on American history because, as a Canadian-born person, I wasn't as familiar with American history as I needed to be in order to tutor Orville."

Ms. Woo tutors Orville for two hours every Saturday.

"He has my undivided attention during that time," she said. "I like to make the sessions really creative - coming up with fresh questions. Orville is quite strong in math, so I focus on English and developing vocabulary. I provide a sort of stability. He knows to expect regular sessions with me, and he also knows that I am pretty thorough when we spend time together on Saturdays at the tutorial program."

Orville's mother Sharon appreciates the time that her son and Ms. Woo spend together. Not only have Orville's grades improved, he has become noticeably more self-confident, Ms. Woo said.

"I help him understand that education is very important in life - and that everything he'd doing now will form part of his life experience," Ms. Woo said. "Of course, Orville is too young to fully grasp that there's a whole career ahead of him. But he's about to start high school, and he's going to see how much more competitive life will become.

"He's becoming quite a little man - and I feel proud to contribute to his personal and intellectual development. He has a very kind heart. I'm also delighted that I get an opportunity to explain aspects of my work to Orville. I show him issues of the magazine, and point to the ads and articles, and I ask him, 'How do you think these things are put together? How do articles happen? Who organizes ads?' Through such questions, I get Orville to understand how things work out there," Ms. Woo said.

And does she see herself continuing such tutoring?

"Of course," Ms. Woo said. "And I encourage all my friends to join as well."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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