Former teacher still helping kids, community grow

Grace Shin said her ethnic heritage was a subject of curiosity among her elementary classmates in suburban Detroit.

"I was asked often, 'Are you Chinese or Japanese?' And I would say, 'No, I'm Korean,' " Shin recounted. "And the other kids would be like, 'I don't know what that is.' "

But they quickly learned what mandu was, as Shin's mom would serve the popular Korean dumplings at the school's cultural exchange event.

"People loved it, and I remember feeling so much pride," she said. "Seeing my mom at school handing out this mandu - I just have such fond memories of that."

Four years ago, Shin, through her Oak School PTO membership, launched Culture Night at the school in an effort to raise awareness of and celebrate the community's diversity.

"We had so much representation at Oak School that was maybe unseen," she said. "The most amazing thing for me was that the families that signed up to be on my (Culture Night) committee weren't families you noticed often at PTO gatherings. They truly felt like this was a place for them."

But would anyone else show up for the event?

"I was worried. Will this just be committee members looking at each other's booths?" Shin related. "I was very surprised at how much the community loved it and how engaged they were.

"I had multiple families come up to me at the event saying, 'This is the best thing I've ever been to at school in all my years," she noted.

It was such a hit that it's become a yearly highlight, surpassing Shin's vision for a bi-annual rhythm.

"It helps you appreciate the differences around you," she said of Culture Night's allure. "And there's a lot of food! People love food."

The former elementary school teacher enjoys serving as a substitute teacher. She even facilitated the student news show when instruction was remote during the pandemic.

"I got the student volunteers. I helped them write scripts. I met with them weekly or twice a week to practice. I let them drive what they wanted to speak about, and then did the filming," Shin said. "It just reminded me how much I love working with children."

She chairs PTO's Kids Care Club committee, encouraging youth to serve through projects like making blankets for hospitalized children or assembling first aid kits for Hinsdale High School District 86 Transition Center students now working without a school nurse at hand. She also heads up the PTO's staff appreciation committee.

"We know they that they work hard and long and do amazing things for our children," Shin said.

She was a member of Community Consolidated Elementary District 181's academic success committee before being elected to the board in 2021. Shin and husband Tom are parents to two sons and a daughter. They are looking forward to visiting Korea in a few months.

"I have all these cousins in Korea that I don't know," she said. "I hope to meet some of them."

This year's Culture Fair (now a daytime gathering) will be Feb. 26, with 28 countries represented.

Shin hopes the idea spreads.

"Maybe other schools will choose to start Culture Night, Culture Fair, whatever they want to call it."

- story by Ken Knutson,

photo by Jim Slonoff

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean