Christine Umayam, ’99, works to break the poverty cycle

Christine Umayam, ’99, thought her trip to the Philippines a few years ago was going to be a chance to get away and enjoy a hard-earned vacation. But that changed the moment she encountered children living in deplorable conditions and parents who kept their kids home from school so they could work to help support their families.

A year after returning home to Seattle, Umayam couldn’t get those images out of her head, so she created Child United. Since its inception four years ago, the Lynnwood-based international relief agency has been a godsend to thousands of poverty-stricken families. It provides schools with books and supplies, financial sponsorships for students, and emergency food and supplies for those ravaged by natural disasters.

For her work, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society in March selected the 35-year-old UW grad as a finalist for its prestigious Citizen Service Before Self Award.

Umayam, who has a bachelor’s degree in communications and American Ethnic Studies from the UW, was the only Washingtonian and the only Filipino-American among the 20 national finalists for the honor. The award goes to “ordinary Americans who become extraordinary by going above and beyond.”

Umayam was nominated “for demonstrating a willingness to sacrifice for others and for changing the lives of the world’s poorest children by offering education opportunities and breaking the poverty cycle.”

From its modest start, Umayam’s all-volunteer organization today serves people in the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, Japan and Haiti. “My dream is to have 10 offices worldwide,” says Umayam, who spends untold hours volunteering for Child United. She recently joined fellow volunteers to pack 160 boxes of clothing, computer equipment, books and other items to be delivered to families in Haiti and the Philippines. “But I am still trying to get things going. This is a never-ending process.”

The daughter of a Navy officer, Umayam grew up in Oak Harbor. She picked the UW because she wanted to go into broadcast journalism.

As much as she loves communications, there’s an equal place in her heart for the young faces she saw in the Philippines five years ago. “Whenever I feel that I am having a hard day,” she says, “I think back to those kids.”

She hopes to get a grant so she can maintain Child United as a full-time organization and expand her offerings to other poor countries. “I never thought I would do anything like this,” Umayam says. “But I realized it was important.”