I remember that, once upon a time, our family was perfect. It was filled with so much love, happiness, and adornment that it encompassed you when you walked into our home. In one single evening, that perfection and lightness was ripped away from us — everything changed when my son Mitchell drowned at a swimming school that he had been left in the care of. Tragedies like this do not make sense, their gravity seems to defy logic, and all we’re left with is the new knowledge that life can knock you down and humble you in ways you never imagined.
Some of those humbling events are ones we go through together collectively as a society. COVID-19 has taken our thunderous, prospering country, shaken it, turned it upside down, and spilled tragedy across millions of lives. It’s just two years after my son died, and here I am, experiencing this second lesson in humility amidst millions of my friends, neighbors, and fellow Americans. It’s impossible for me to separate these tragedies in my head — they’re inexplicably linked, and once I made that connection in my head, I started on a journey that I never imagined I would be on — one that takes this heartbreaking time and lifts people up together while honoring my son.
Two months after my three-year-old son, Mitchell, died, we formed The Mitchell Chang Foundation. Our goal was to partner with the City of San Antonio to build an inclusive pirate-themed playground, Mitchell’s Landing at Classen-Steubing Ranch Park. San Antonio does not currently have an inclusive public playground — despite over 100,000 families with disabilities calling this city home. We want all families to have the opportunity and access to feel the love and joy that Mitchell brought to our lives.
The Foundation spent two years raising money towards the 1.2 million dollar playground. We raised thousands through our GoFundMe and a 5K run, Mitchell’s 5k for Inclusive Play. The time had come to apply to our local major corporations for grant funding to complete the funds needed to order the playground, and we began working with talented grant writers who were incredibly touched by Mitchell’s story. It seemed so real, so close — I began to fantasize about adding such exciting and fun inclusive elements such as sounds of beach waves to the playground. I was so caught up in preparing the grant requests I didn’t notice that some people were getting sick in China. I wasn’t too concerned when the words SARS started to get thrown out there. It seemed so distant. We’d be okay — we’re in America, right?
Then the bottom fell out. All of our lives changed immediately. The American economy just halted. It didn’t even seem to sputter to a stop, it just halted violently and abruptly — taking with it so many people’s jobs and ability to earn income. Within a week everyone went from carefree to survival mode — 22 million people are currently unemployed. How can we submit our grants in a time like this? How can we ask for money when so many companies are taking a huge financial hit? Even more important, how can we ask for money when there are others who need it much more than us right now? We just can’t. Our grant season was over. I was devastated and felt helpless to assist people in a time where the kind of joy that we were trying to bring is desperately needed.
My husband is a physician, and I began to notice something curious. He was bringing his surgical mask home every day. He explained to me that he was doing this because the situation had become so dire that he didn’t know if there would be another one there the next day for him to use. Friends who were nurses started looking to buy cloth masks to help extend the life of their “weekly mask.” Their stress was palpable to me, and I knew The Foundation had to help. This is our community — we didn’t want San Antonio to end up unprepared like other cities, with residents and frontline workers alike in a precarious position of not having enough protection. On March 20th, we took control of the one thing we could in this crisis: The Foundation was going to help our healthcare workers have access to PPE so that they can continue to help our community members as safely as possible.
We organized a mask drive and thousands of volunteers answered our call. The movement had begun and it immediately became a unifying, unstoppable force. Those who hadn’t sewn in years started again. Over 10,000 sewn masks were donated to The Mitchell Chang Foundation, that we were able to give to; 66 entire hospital units, South Texas Blood and Tissue Bank, three nursing homes, Bexar County Courthouse, Battered Women’s and Children’s Shelter, Child Bereavement Center, CASA, SA Youth, SA Food Bank, Chow Train, Northside ISD, North East ISD, two cancer centers, 22 indigent clinics, Meals on Wheels, and The National Guard. Mitchell had inspired so many to be a part of his Good Story and to help our city in a time of unheard-of calamity, but his memorial playground seemed to be drifting away.
After our initial drive, masks were mandated for all citizens in San Antonio and I knew what we needed to do. The Foundation could help our communities workers and benefit the city — while raising money to build a playground. During the mask drive I noticed many extraordinarily talented seamstresses, who would normally be making intricate fiesta, quinceanera, and wedding dresses, were not able to work due to the wide-ranging restrictions of COVID. The plan was simple — to hire these individuals and sewing studios to sew masks that The Foundation will sell and all proceeds will go to build Mitchell’s Landing.
I knew that masks were already in high demand and that people were scrambling to buy them. We just needed to figure out where to sell them. I approached H-E-B, a Texas grocery store, with my fundraising idea of them purchasing our face masks to sell in their stores. For those outside of Texas, it can be hard to understand what H-E-B is to people within its communities. H-E-B is like the patriarch of Texas, a community outpost, watching over us all making sure we are safe and living as good of a life as possible. This company has a Disaster Relief department that has plans ready to enact in times of crisis or natural disaster, such as during Hurricane Harvey, where they used mobile pharmacies to deliver much-needed medication and distributed food relief. Texans taking care of Texas — that’s how they do it. COVID-19 crisis is no different. H-E-B saw what was coming and prepared. It did this so that we would have food to eat, milk for our children, and diapers for our babies.
Even with their phenomenal outreach efforts, I was incredibly nervous about this proposal, and frankly, I fully expected a polite no in response. H-E-B didn’t know us, they didn’t know Mitchell. Then the response came — H-E-B was immediately supportive about how this initiative would help underemployed workers and small businesses in our region, and they were further enamored about how the net proceeds from this were going to help build this innovative, accessible playground.
H-E-B wanted to order the masks for their stores as soon as possible! I was overjoyed and overwhelmed. There’s something wonderful about the fact that the store our family and Mitchell shopped in every week, and made so many memories in, is going to have products of The Foundation’s in it! This chain, which is already doing so much to provide comfort to our community, had taken the time to notice The Mitchell Chang Foundation and decided to help facilitate our fundraiser by purchasing masks sewn by seamstresses to make available to the public. In true H-E-B fashion, they decided that all proceeds of this fundraiser will go towards building Mitchell’s Landing.
I’m proud of this project and the people involved in it. All of a sudden Mitchell’s Landing is back on track for its projected fall of 2021 opening — and Mitchell will once again have a positive impact on our community by providing much needed jobs and stimulating the local economy. There’s something especially wonderful about knowing that his playground will bring much-needed sunshine, brightness, and love to the San Antonio community after this challenging, perplexing time.
Some things in life, like tragedy, humble you by taking away something you love. Other things humble you by showing you the best of humanity, eagerly rallying around you in times of crisis. Thanks to H-E-B’s support, The Foundation has been able to employ many individuals during this uncertain time — and has brought some rays of happiness, joy, and security to a world that desperately needs it right now.