AAPI Heritage Month Member Spotlight: Lily Harada

By Catalina Combs – May 28, 2021

Let’s talk about you! How would you describe yourself? What do you do for a living?

I like to be busy. I work a lot, but balance that with spending time in a variety of activities. Reflecting on high school, I was never just part of just one group, nor did I have just one set of friends. I liked all school subjects, belonged to service and language clubs, dabbled in musical theater, did some sports and enjoyed arts and crafts. I was also very active at my Buddhist temple in Little Tokyo and attended Japanese language school every Saturday from kindergarten to high school.

As you can imagine, I had a hard time narrowing down a college major, let alone a school. So as not to financially burden my parents, I went to nearby Cal-State Los Angeles. I worked part-time on campus at the disabled students’ office and was a member of Delta Zeta Sorority. I started as an accounting major, switched to graphic arts and ultimately ended up with a BS in International Business.

I worked a few years in freight forwarding, then transitioned to a job with an ophthalmology group where I worked with patients and assisted the doctors with their private group practice and residency program. In 1990, I got married to Craig and we moved to Culver City to be closer to both our jobs. As the company grew, I found myself mostly doing human resources and payroll. Around that time, I felt ready to continue my education and started in the fully-employed MBA program at USC, going to classes at night. In 1998, I left healthcare and began work with Smart & Final as a compensation analyst in the human resources department.

Currently, I’m the Corporate Director of Human Resources overseeing benefits, compensation and the HR information system and records for over 11,000 associates.

What previous connections did you have with the Rose Parade?

I grew up in South Pasadena, so I did a little float decorating. Back then, I only saw recordings of the parade since we went to temple on January 1 mornings every year. It wasn’t until I joined the Tournament that my mom “excused” me to miss temple. I didn’t see the full parade live until I was an At-Large-Member.

One year, while doing extra duty for Post Parade, I was assigned to the island where our Smart & Final float was parked. Despite the rain and hearing the hand-glued beans sliding off the float sign, I shared stories with visitors on how the company chose the float design and how associates helped decorate.

I have so many great memories over the nearly 20 parades I’ve been involved with, but the 2017 parade was extra special. My son performed with the Arcadia High School Apache Marching Band! As vice-chair of Parade Operations, I was at the corner of Orange Grove and Green Street helping with timing, but I was able to say hello to our band directors and cheer for the kids.

What made you want to become a Tournament volunteer? What keeps you motivated to continue?

In 2000, Smart & Final had its first float, and being in human resources, I spent days at the then Duarte Fiesta Floats barn helping to coordinate and feed our associates. I started small, cutting straw flowers, and worked up to decorating; that’s what planted the seed. Shortly after that, I had a chat with Rick Phegley, my company CFO, about the organization he volunteered with, and soon after, I was invited to join.

Over the nearly 20 years, I have made so many friends. Being a member is such an integral part of my life. It started as something just for me since my son was young when I joined, but it has become something for the whole family, with my son in the parade, my daughter earning her girl scout patch at Decorating Places and Craig helping me with Queen & Court.

Looking forward, I believe that we will see progress in our Better Together Initiative. I hope that even once we’re back in full swing with our busy committee activities, Better Together will continue to be an important strategy for our organization.

What does AAPI heritage month mean to you?

It’s an opportunity to learn from historical events and to celebrate and share the unique cultures of Americans of Asian and Pacific Island descent. For me, it’s a chance to talk to my parents and learn more about them, besides just being mom and dad. I’d like to find out more about what it was like for my mom and her family to be relocated to the Manzanar internment camp during WWII. My grandparents didn’t talk about it growing up since it was uncomfortable, but if there’s anything I’ve learned this past year, time is short. It’s also a great time to get my dad’s perspective on what it was like immigrating from Japan to Los Angeles in a post-WWII era. It would be wonderful for my kids to hear these conversations since a lot of prejudice during that time may parallel current anti-Asian sentiment.

Speaking of now, I don’t know of anyone personally who has been impacted during this time, but I can’t help but worry each time my dad goes out to get gas or when my parents go to the market that something could happen like the horror stories we see on the news and social media. I caution my kids every time they go out to be very conscious of their surroundings since, sadly, this isn’t the same world that it was a year ago.

Can you recall meaningful opportunities or moments you have had as a volunteer?

The most meaningful have been the opportunities in the Pasadena community during the pandemic – helping to pass out food/essential items for NAACP families at the Rose Bowl and lunches at John Muir, sorting books at the House garage for literacy week, volunteering at vaccination clinics at PCC and Victory Park. I’ve been able to reconnect in person with Tournament friends while giving back to the community that so strongly supports our parade. It was nice to see many friends as they checked in to receive their shots, and I was touched when I heard a former Royal Court member shout out, “Hi, Mrs. Harada!”

Through work, I help/have helped with Reading Across America Day – reading to kids at a local elementary school, LA Heart Walk, City of Hope Walk, LA Dodgers Foundation – packing and distributing Thanksgiving dinner meals. As a member of the Queen & Court committee, I chaperoned and helped with outreach programs and events like Habitat for Humanity, Friends in Deed and the Black History Parade. I also enjoy doing taiko drumming. We performed at the 2020 LA Marathon for hours to cheer on the runners. I’m not sure if all these opportunities will be available this unusual year, but I plan to continue and start to do more within the Japanese American and AAPI communities.

Why do you think volunteering is important to yourself, other individuals, family, and communities?

Volunteering is important to me, and a way to show empathy for different causes or organizations. Like, City of Hope for family members who are survivors and those whom we’ve lost to cancer. I want to continue a tradition. For example, helping at my son’s former HS band events, helping in the annual temple carnival food booth. Mostly I volunteer because it’s the right thing to do. COVID vaccination clinics need help during this time. It’s a way for families, friends and even strangers within communities to come together inclusively – that’s how we all started when we joined the Tournament.

While I have lots of activities related to my Japanese-American heritage, the beauty of belonging to diverse organizations like the Tournament of Roses and Smart & Final offers me opportunities to explore new and different types of activities. It makes me feel good to lend a hand.