As Jae An tried to understand what people were saying to him in English, he relied on people’s facial expressions and body language when he was 8 years old.
He remembers other challenges he faced when his family immigrated to the United States from South Korea: His mom said An was often upset because he missed his friends back home. His family was poor and lived at the New Horizon Motel on Pacific Highway South for a few months, before his dad got a part-time job and his family moved into the Greystone Meadows Apartments.
Despite the challenges, An has mostly fond recollections of Federal Way, including one very special memory of Lake Grove Elementary — the school where he learned to speak English.
“Everyone was really nice. The school was helpful,” the now 32-year-old said last Friday afternoon at the Federal Way Police Department, where An has worked as a police officer for over two years. “The best memory I have was the music program that the school had. I liked playing the piano. I did the talent show in the third grade and I didn’t speak a word of English.”
An said Lake Grove is a “special place” to him, and the memories he has of the school also played a huge role in why he decided to become a cop in Federal Way.
That is what prompted him to recently rally support from his friends and police colleagues, which netted over 20 new bikes for Lake Grove students with perfect attendance last June.
An reached out to Lake Grove staff last year to find a way to give back to the Lake Grove community. Administrators connected him with Patty Zamora, the school’s family liaison, who told him about the school’s program that has rewarded students with perfect attendance with new or used bikes at the end of the school year since 2016.
An was initially going to buy one new bike for the school, but decided to reach out to his friends and colleagues to garner support for the program. He sent out an email that included his story about immigrating to the U.S. and why Lake Grove is meaningful to him. Some people donated $20 to the cause; some donated $100.
An feels good knowing that Lake Grove scholars with perfect attendance received the new bicycles at the end of the school year.
“… A lot of the students [at the school] have trouble getting school supplies,” he noted. “So I’m sure a new bike isn’t something on the list for the parents every year.”
But An doesn’t take any of the credit for the bikes.
“The school should get all the credit for that. All I did was get some people together at work and try to get some more bikes.”
Kassie Swenson, district spokesperson, said that each school in the Federal Way School District encourages strong attendance to help meet the district’s attendance goals in their own way.
“Officer Jae An’s support illustrates how leaders within our community can contribute to our schools and inspire our scholars to attend school every day,” stated Superintendent Dr. Tammy Campbell in a statement.
In addition to An’s affection for Lake Grove, his parents also inspired him to go above and beyond to help the students.
After living in Federal Way for two years, his family moved to New Jersey, where An later became a police officer.
“They would go to impoverished cities around where we lived and make sandwiches from the back of their car and give them out on Sunday mornings,” An recalled of his parents. “They always told me, ‘It doesn’t matter what you have or don’t have, even if you’re starving, you should always donate time or do what you can to give back.’”
An’s parents later moved to Everett and bought a store, which prompted him to apply for a position with the Federal Way Police Department and come back home to Federal Way.
He said the biggest challenge of serving in law enforcement is that “all the good things we do are being overshadowed by something else and forgotten. I know that every officer in Federal Way got into law enforcement to protect and help everyone the best we can.”
The most rewarding aspect of being a cop is when he’s able to have a positive interaction with the community and make an impact.
Chief of Police Andy Hwang said An is committed to the Federal Way community.
“This is an outstanding example of an officer making a positive connection with our community, particularly with our youth. I couldn’t be more proud of the work by Officer An to help others in our community,” Hwang said in a statement. “It is great to see a young man grow up here in Federal Way, attending Federal Way Public Schools, and then giving back to the very community he grew up in. As a police organization we strive to earn the public’s trust every day and this type of community involvement illustrates those efforts.”
An hopes to eventually expand the bike program to other schools in the district. As for the program at Lake Grove, he is committed to continuing his support in high speed.
“I’ll do it until I retire.”
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