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Winchester resident Mai Harrison has been named the 2024 Citizen of the Year by the Winchester Chamber of Commerce. She will be honored with a banquet on May 28. WINCHESTER NEWS STAFF PHOTO/NELL ESCOBAR COAKLEY

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Mai Harrison is always willing to lend a helping hand. After all, she’s been a bee, a flamingo, a shark and even a hot dog — all in the name of supporting her community.

So it was no surprise that when her friend, Dot Butler, asked Harrison to come to a Chamber of Commerce luncheon to support a fellow volunteer, she quickly accepted. But little did she know, the luncheon was in her honor and she’d been named the Citizen of the Year for 2024.

“I was literally so surprised,” says Harrison, sitting in her home on a sunny Wednesday afternoon. “I didn’t even know I’d been nominated. I never thought it would be me! I got all teary-eyed.”

Harrison remembers sitting at the luncheon when Dana Garmey, the chamber’s executive director, started to describe the winner. She had no idea it was her.

“It wasn’t until the end, the last paragraph when she said, ‘This person was in an owl costume, a bee costume…,’” she says. “That’s when I knew. I was very stunned. I had no idea.”

Harrison called her sister to tell her the news, but her sister already knew. In fact, she was hidden away at the luncheon.

“She knew beforehand and she was happy for me,” Harrison says, laughing. “She also texted my husband and he didn’t get it. Then he realized and he was really proud. I told my kids and they were super cute about it.”

A banquet will be held in Harrison’s honor on May 28 at Café Escadrille in Burlington.

“I’m super nervous,” Harrison admits. “Even though I’m used to being in crowds, I haven’t had to make a speech!”

The many faces of Mai Harrison in various costumes while volunteering around the community. COURTESY PHOTOS/MAI HARRISON

The beginning

You may not know who Harrison is, but you’ve probably seen her around Winchester dressed in myriad costumes, supporting myriad causes.

Since she moved to Winchester 18 years ago with her family, Harrison has volunteered, organized and helped run a lot of programs with the following organizations in town: Family Action Network, Children’s Own School, Kid Connection, Vinson-Owen School, McCall Middle School, Winchester High School, Winchester Friends of Music, WHS Track and Field, En Ka, Winchester Home and Garden Club, Winchester’s Got Lunch, Winchester Foundation for Educational Excellence, and VFW Parade Committee.  

Harrison admits volunteering wasn’t something she did before arriving in town.

“I got here and learned about playgroups,” she recalls. “We joined up and started small and then I had to volunteer. That was the start.”

So what was Harrison doing before? Let’s start at the beginning.

Harrison was born in a refugee camp in Indonesia in 1980. Her mother had escaped the Communist regime in Vietnam by boat while pregnant with Harrison.

When she was 1 month old, Harrison’s family was sponsored by a church and immigrated to the United States. The family landed in Arlington.

Although her mother didn’t know a word of English, Harrison’s father did.

“My dad picked it up easier,” Harrison says. “He worked with Americans, fixing planes so he knew English. My mom spoke Vietnamese to us at home.”

Harrison remembers her parents working while neighbors Ida Fisher and Sheila Sullivan watched her and her five siblings.

“They were the ones who introduced us to American food,” she laughs. “They were just the best.”

Mai Harrison, seated on the right, in second grade at the Little Flower School in Somerville. COURTESY PHOTO/MAI HARRISON

In pre-school, the family moved to Somerville and Harrison enrolled at the Little Flower School at St. Benedict’s. By fifth grade, the family was able to buy a house of their own in Malden, where Harrison’s parents still reside.

When asked what it was like growing up in Malden, Harrison shakes her head.

“For me, all I knew was school and on the weekends, I would go work in my mom’s shop,” she explains. “She owns her own beauty salon in Dorchester in Fields Corner. So, every weekend, she made us go there.”

Harrison says her parents believed in working hard to achieve your dreams. But they also stressed the importance of education.

As a result, Harrison was her class secretary at Malden High School, a member of the National Honor Society and co-editor of the student newspaper, the Blue & Gold. In 1998, she graduated.

“I was the first one in my family to go to college,” she says. “I went to Mount Holyoke. I didn’t know it was an all-woman’s college, but I got a great scholarship.”

Harrison’s goal was to become a lawyer and help other immigrants. She saw how her mother, as the oldest of her family, would send money back to her family and how she wanted to sponsor her family here in the U.S.

“My mom couldn’t wait to get her citizenship,” Harrison says. “She failed three times, but she worked hard and finally got it. My dad passed, too.”

An opportunity to work with the Boston Refugee Youth Enrichment Program, a Harvard University undergrad program that taught English to Vietnamese refugee children, changed what Harrison wanted to do with her life.

“They needed junior counselors to translate,” she says. “We taught English in the mornings and in the afternoons, we went on different field trips.”

It was at the program that Harrison met her husband, David, who was teaching English and learning Vietnamese at the same time.

“I really enjoyed working with the kids,” she says, of the experience. “I was making a difference with the kids and I loved it.”

So out went law. Instead, Harrison majored in psychology and minored in education.

In 2002, Harrison graduated college and got married. Then it was off to Tufts University, where she got a full scholarship to graduate school, and received a masters in education.

While the family settled in Randolph, Harrison taught at a bilingual Vietnamese pre-school in Dorchester and her husband attended medical school and did his residency.

Eventually, Kayla and Amanda came along and the Harrisons started looking at moving to a place closer to David’s work with good schools for the kids.

“My sister was working in Winchester at the time,” Harrison says. “We were between Winchester and Lexington, but there was just something about Winchester that I loved.”

In 2006, the Harrison family moved into their first home on Dottin Street.

Getting involved

As a member of the Family Action Network, Harrison started getting involved with playgroups and before she knew it, she was organizing the Mom’s Night Out. Then it was organizing the holiday drive.

“I really got to know the moms and the community,” she says. “I was just amazed how much people cared and how generous they were.”

Mai Harrison with her husband David, daughters Amanda and Kayla and son Bryan. COURTESY PHOTO/MAI HARRISON

At the Children’s Own School, Harrison became a room parent. She moved on to the PTO and eventually became president. As her kids moved from school to school, Harrison moved from PTO to PTO, becoming president at every school they attended.

She’s now the PTO president at Winchester High School, where her youngest, Bryan, is a student. Additionally, she’s fair co-chair for the En Ka Society, helps with the Winchester Foundation for Educational Excellence, is a member of the Winchester Home and Garden Club and helps organize the Veterans Day and Memorial Day parades for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

She really loves volunteering.

“I do!” Harrison laughs. “It’s because of the people I work with. My goal is when I gather people, we’re gonna have fun.”

Coming full circle

From Harrison’s current home on Arlington Street, there’s a view of the Winchester Country Club just down the road. She talks about how her father, when he saw the view, told her he had once worked at the club as a dishwasher.

“My family is an example of the American dream,” Harrison says. “We’ve come full circle.”

Mai Harrison's parents, Thu and Alex Nguyen, taught her the importance of education and hard work to achieve the American dream. COURTESY PHOTO/MAI HARRISON

There’s a moment of quiet as Harrison ponders the road from Vietnam to Winchester, from being an educator to a volunteer. She knows the Citizen of the Year is a big honor and she’s still processing what it means for someone who simply loves giving back to her community.

“It’s a chamber fundraiser,” she says, of the upcoming banquet. “I just cannot imagine the people who are coming are paying to see me.”

Having read some of the things people wrote about her in her nominations, Harrison is flattered and says those nice words are “a gift in itself.”

“I don’t do this for the thank yous,” she says. “I truly love it…the positivity of it, the people I meet…it’s a gift. It’s kept me going for 18 years.”

But is she ready for her big speech?

“I have not started my speech,” Harrison says. “I keep reminding myself that the one thing I can’t forget is the reason that I’m here and that’s the people I work with. And my family, they have been a huge support. They’re never embarrassed. I mean, their mom’s been dressed in a hot dog suit!”

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