A journey of dedication: Building community in San Gabriel, California

November 21, 2023
A journey of dedication: Building community in San Gabriel, California

By Nadia Mehretab

What does it look like to commit to the spiritual and material advancement of a population? In San Gabriel, California, a group of four friends embarked on an extraordinary journey, bound together by faith and their shared dedication to nurturing young hearts. Their experiences convey the power of service, camaraderie and the unmistakable blessings that come when one commits to a process of learning in service.

Emily Chou, an elementary-school teacher with a love for children, explains that while she was not a member of the Bahá’í Faith, she desired for some time to serve and apply the Bahá’í teachings in the community-building process. “I want to do a [Bahá’í] children’s class, whatever that means,” she says she remembers thinking.

Over several years, as Chou taught a children’s class in an apartment complex near Rosemead Boulevard, she realized the importance of being committed to the families connected to the class.

This apartment complex was unique in many ways, especially through the multiple languages spoken. “Most people are from Venezuela, Guatemala, Mexico,” Chou says. Many speak the Indigenous languages found in Guatemala and Mexico’s Oaxaca state.

Through her service she became familiar with the material challenges families were experiencing, like limited access to affordable nutritious food, along with spiritual challenges, such as prejudice between racial groups.

Chou found she wanted to move to the complex. “I just want to be there all the time. … When I have to leave it would feel painful,” she says. Going there feels “like I’m going to Disneyland. I just want to be there right now. I don’t want to have to drive 15 minutes.”

Originally from Arizona, Chou and her husband, Samir Fierro, were living in Pasadena. Fierro was attending school while working in downtown Los Angeles. Moving to San Gabriel did not seem to align with their lives.

However, during summer 2022 things began to shift for the couple when they found an apartment within their price range in the San Gabriel area, while at the same time their Pasadena landlord assured them he could find new renters to take their place. This was the first of many confirmations for the couple and some of their friends.

Fierro and his close friend Naveed Eghterafi had both recently begun dedicating themselves to the community-building process in the same San Gabriel neighborhood. They were soon joined by Amelia Rasekhy, a friend already well-acquainted with the community, in the common effort of nurturing the spiritual growth of children and youth.

Also strengthening their service, Fierro says, Eghterafi agreed to move to the San Gabriel neighborhood around the same time.

“I could co-animate with him,” Fierro says, referring to a mentoring role. “I’m in school, so I didn’t think I could do a junior youth group by myself.”

Rasekhy was similarly drawn to serve in the complex near Rosemead Boulevard with this group of friends. She had only moved to the United States six years ago, having grown up in Singapore.

“I just wanted to homefront pioneer for a long time since I moved to the U.S.,” Rasekhy says. While she was living in Monrovia, another L.A. suburb, her rent was rising and a junior youth group she was animating had dispersed. She was glad to hear her friends tell her, “‘So just come and join us!’ And so I went and yeah, that was really confirming.”

One memorable evening, everything rose to the next level. After a day filled with activities, the four friends found themselves at an apartment complex, conversing, listening, and connecting with the children.

“We ended up at the apartment complex for an entire night, just involved with what was going on with the kids and their lives there,” says Fierro. That night marked a significant moment of learning and growth, the birth of their nucleus of activity.

Fierro, Rasekhy and Eghterafi were focused on growing the junior youth spiritual empowerment program, which serves ages 12–14. Meanwhile, participants in the children’s class that Chou began several years ago had advanced to that age range. The junior youth group “stole all my people,” Chou jokes.

One of those young people provided another in a series of confirmations reaffirming the four friends’ path of service. The team was focused on growing family devotionals. “When we set, like, 10 goals we’ll probably achieve four or five,” Rasekhy observes. “Well, that was one of the goals. … The confirmation that came there was really, really sweet.”

A junior youth participant, who had learned to sing prayers years earlier in Chou’s children’s class, told them that she sings the prayers with her younger siblings every night. “It just brings them a lot of joy and helps them sleep,” Rasekhy says.

The culture of saying prayers naturally found its way into the life of the family. Now the team continues to work with families, with Chou and Fierro hosting dinners and sometimes junior youth day camps.

Another confirmation involved one of the mothers in their community: Martha, age 29 with five children, including a junior-youth-age daughter.

Chou says, “I had been having home visits about education and the importance of education for their 12 year-old, and it ended up being a conversation where Martha, the mom, was like, ‘But what about me? I need to learn,’ She’s only been able to receive a kindergarten education from Guatemala. And so, yeah, we’ve been meeting together and we’ll study the junior youth books together in Spanish and practice the letters and then learn the words and circle words we don’t know.”

This process of working with Martha reflects the beginning of thinking about a just system of  education for a whole community, where knowledge is accessible to all. With the help of her community, Martha has enrolled in English classes for adults in Pasadena Community College.

Their journey living in the Rosemead Boulevard area tells a simple yet profound narrative of faith, dedication and the potent force of community. Chou—who has since enrolled as a Bahá’í—along with Fierro, Eghterafi and Rasekhy, say their unwavering commitment to nurturing the spiritual development of children and youth is not only transforming their community, but also strengthening their own bonds of friendship and faith.

The confirmations, they believe, were not mere moments of validation; they were stepping stones toward building a vibrant and thriving community.


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