At 71, Dennis Su takes his retirement seriously. Whether it’s attending board meetings for multiple organizations around Seattle or overseeing and carrying out projects for his main focus, China Tomorrow Education Foundation (CTEF), Su isn’t spending his retirement lying down.
Born and raised in Hong Kong in the late 1950s, Su moved to the United States, where he graduated from Oklahoma State University with a bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering. He was an architect for over 30 years working for various firms in Seattle, eventually starting his own in 1975.
When his architectural work started to slow around 1999, Su pursued other endeavors. He had heard about a program at the Northwest Chinese School in Bellevue that would help people in the Guangzhou province of China. There was no water supply accessible to the people, so the school raised money to build a pump system connected to a nearby well to get them running water.
Su was able to visit the area and oversee the project with other coordinators from the school. After the project was completed, he and those coordinators decided to found a spin-off organization. Su took the role of president, filed the financial documents, gathered a few donors, and CTEF was born.
CTEF is a Seattle-based, non-profit organization dedicated to aiding and funding children in the most rural parts of China. It is entirely run by volunteers, and together, they hope to create an environment that, as Su, now the president emeritus of CTEF, said, “prepares young children to enter the world stage with good citizenship.”
“We all read about how China is growing so fast, but once you travel there, you realize how backward some of these villages are,” he said. “I worry that if those kids don’t get a decent education, they will be a burden for China to really move forward — an investment into the future of the population.”
Schooling wasn’t always easy for Su either. When he was in preschool, right after the end of World War II, conditions in Hong Kong were very tough. He specifically recalls a carton of milk, then a government subsidy, being delivered once a week to his school. The whole class was able to enjoy a glass, a luxury many of us take for granted.
Later, he spent his college summers doing odd jobs in restaurants in Seattle, Chicago, and New York, once washing dishes at Ruby Chow’s Restaurant.
Likewise, Su said the majority of the CTEF donors experienced similar hardships growing up in different parts of Asia. They can relate to the harsh circumstances. Su and the donors want to afford others a better opportunity to grow and learn.
Since its inception in 1999, CTEF has funded over $1.8 million dollars for 171 schools in 13 provinces in China, including Guangxi, Gansu, and Hunan.
“I feel a sense of accomplishment, similar to what you get as an architect,” Su said. “You’re building on and investing in the human.”
Su is currently working on a documentary film he’s producing for CTEF. The film follows two high school students from Seattle Preparatory School, who decided that they wanted to help under-privileged children in China.
Raising over $2,000, the two students visited 10 schools in the Guangxi province and were able to provide all of the children with colored pencils, balls, and jump ropes. With over 50 hours of footage collected from the trip, Su plans to create a 30-minute movie depicting the harsh conditions of the villages they visited, along with the reactions of the two students after each trip. He hopes the film, titled “Higher Hat,” will be finished before the end of this year.
Though Su is used to being on his feet, travelling overseas and keeping his hands busy with any project he gets, he cannot say he acts alone in the whole process.
“I have to give some credit to my family and my wife for supporting me,” Su said. “Not every wife can see the husband off going to rural Chinese villages all the time.”
Su is also keeping his retirement busy as a board member for the Seattle Chinese Garden Society and as co-chair at the Chinatown Seafair Parade — his fun, annual project.
“I’m an executor,” Su said. “Once I come up with a plan, I will carry it out. I enjoy doing things. I enjoy seeing results. I never put it in words, but I think it’s in the blood.”
For more information on the China Tomorrow Education Foundation, visit www.ctef.org.
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