April 12, 2019

Tattoo reminds award winner of his life’s mission

Yan Yan tutors a child as a volunteer for Hope for Tomorrow, an Indianapolis organization that helps Burmese children with their homework. (Submitted photo)

Yan Yan tutors a child as a volunteer for Hope for Tomorrow, an Indianapolis organization that helps Burmese children with their homework. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Yan Yan smiles as he shows the tattoo that represents his approach to serving others and honoring God.

The 20-year-old’s tattoo on his right leg features the Latin phrase Imago Dei.

“It means image of God,” Yan says. “Since everyone is created in the image of God, every action I take should be for God. I got the tattoo on my leg because it’s a reminder that every step I take is to serve God.”

That philosophy has guided his volunteer efforts to help children from Burmese families in Indianapolis to improve their English and their academic skills, all in the hope of aiding them to adapt to life in America and pave the way for a better future.

Those efforts have also led Yan to be chosen as the young adult recipient of the archdiocese’s 2019 Spirit of Service Award, an honor he will receive on April 30 in Indianapolis during a celebration that will mark the 100th anniversary of Catholic Charities in central and southern Indiana.

(Related story: IndyCar driver Ed Carpenter to speak at Spirit of Service Awards Dinner)

Yan’s concern and compassion for youths who are struggling stems from his own struggles upon arriving in the United States when he was 13.

His family’s journey to freedom began when his father—a Catholic—fled Burma because of religious and ethnic persecution. Yan and his parents eventually became refugees in Malaysia before moving to America. Their first stop was in Washington state before settling in Indianapolis.

A turning point in his life came when he attended St. Mark the Evangelist School in Indianapolis for eighth grade.

“I was one of the first Burmese to attend the school,” he says. “There were only about five of us. Most of us didn’t know English, but because we are a small school, they were able to help us, which was nice.”

Another quality of St. Mark School also made an impact on him.

“At first, I didn’t want to go to a Catholic school. But then I saw the great aspect of it. I learned about the Catholic religion, and I was able to go to Mass. Looking back, I grew from those experiences. It strengthened my faith.”

It also strengthened his resolve to make a difference during his years as a student at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis. Even while being involved in the theater and fine arts programs at Roncalli, he served as an English instructor for younger Burmese children in his free time.

That volunteer commitment has continued while he’s a college student at Marian University in Indianapolis. He’s the after-school program coordinator for Hope for Tomorrow, an organization on the south side of Indianapolis that helps Burmese children with their homework and their language proficiency.

“Most of their parents don’t speak English, so we’re able to help the students with homework,” Yan says. “When I see the kids smiling and doing their homework, it’s just so joyful to me. And I like seeing the joy of the parents when they tell me that their kid’s grades are improving. That keeps me going.”

Yan also works as a teacher’s aide at St. Mark School, focusing on the Burmese students. He has also volunteered at a legal clinic, helping serve as an interpreter for Burmese people applying for permanent residency.

Yan views all these efforts as a way of “paying back” for all the agencies that have helped his family resettle in the United States, including the assistance of Catholic Charities in helping his parents find jobs.

Yan’s admirers say he represents the spirit of Catholic Charities.

“It would be exceptionally difficult to find a person who so genuinely has exemplified the Catholic Charities’ mission of serving the vulnerable in the community without anything in return,” notes Julie Albertson, St. Mark’s director of youth ministry. “The vast amount of people from all ages and backgrounds that Yan has given so much time and love to is such a gift to the Indianapolis community.”

Yan considers it a gift to be in the United States and Indianapolis.

“It’s amazing to be able to speak your mind and worship the way you want to,” he says. “We have so many great things that have happened to us here. But there are so many potentials our Burmese community has, too. I’m trying to lift that up in any way I can.”

(The Criterion will feature Spirit of Service Award recipient James Morris in our April 26 issue. Robert “Lanny” Rossman was featured in a March 29 story. Liz Stanton was featured in an April 5 issue.)

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