In your hometown with… the Lai family

For most families, the pandemic has been a time for challenges, changes and adjustments. So it’s been for the Lai family, but they’ve also received a special gift that most parents don’t get until their children are grown: validation that their parenting messages to their kids actually work! 

The Lai Family.

“We’re resilient, and we teach our children to roll with the punches and have a strong work ethic. Life isn’t always rainbows and unicorns. We spend a lot of time talking about character and grit,” said Kelly Lai. “We did this before COVID, but the pandemic has really emphasized that things are hard, but we can make it OK.” 

Husband Hyrum added, “I think the stars of all this have been the kids. They’ve just rolled with the punches and adjusted. They’ve been real rock stars!”

A typical pandemic workday finds Kelly, a teacher at five schools in the West Hollywood area, bouncing between the living room and the garage while teaching her students online; 10-year-old Griffin attending online school in his room; Hyrum working remotely in the shed; and 5-year-old Vivienne going to kindergarten at the dining room table. 

“Vivienne is doing great with school. Alexa is the third parent,” Kelly laughs. “We set alerts to tell Vivienne when to log in.”

Both of the kids are still doing fun activities during Safer at Home. Vivienne is taking rhythmic gymnastics through the Artistico School of Dance and AYSO soccer. She played T-ball “for a hot second” right before the quarantine hit. Griffin, a fifth-grader at Kentwood plays first base and outfield for his DRALL team, water polo with the South Bay United Club Team and attends socially distanced Cub Scouts with Hyrum as his den leader. Griffin was also recently elected president of the Kentwood student council.

Kelly returned to teaching this fall after taking a leave of absence after having Vivienne. She has been a teacher with LAUSD since 2001, when she was recruited at a job fair while attending Southern Utah University in Cedar City. 

“They were going through a teacher shortage and I knew nothing about L.A., but I was ready for the challenge. After I graduated, I moved here. I didn’t know anyone so I stayed at a youth hostel in Santa Monica for a week,” Kelly said. 

She discovered she loved Los Angeles and met some very good friends and future husband Hyrum, so she ditched her initial plans of moving to San Diego, where she was born, after getting her California teaching credential. 

“One year turned into 20!” she said.

Hyrum grew up in Rowland Heights and attended USC as a business major. He spent two years in the Philippines on a church mission before returning to finish his education. He now works at an ad agency, Full Hearts, which specializes in marketing and advertising for nonprofits. Two of their biggest clients are Operation Smile and Mercy Ships. 

“I enjoy working from home because I get to see my kids more often. It’s been nice to slow down a little bit. Life doesn’t feel like such a rat race right now, but I’m ready for quarantine to be over,” he said.

Kelly’s job is a little more challenging to do online because she teaches adapted physical education for students with special needs. 

“I try to make it as fun as possible. We use exercise videos and live stuff with scarves and balls, things that most people have at home. And I use a lot of music,” she said. “It’s a wonderful job and so rewarding. Getting to do P.E. with kids who have special needs is the best job in the world. I’ve been in education in a lot of different settings, but this is the best job ever!”

Kelly began her career teaching physical education at Berendo Middle School and then got her special education credential. She has been working with students with special needs for 12 years. She also was recently certified in Adapted Physical Education. She taught at Kentwood Elementary for eight years after they bought their house in Westchester because Kelly wanted a job closer to home.

“After we got married and wanted to buy a house, we looked all over West L.A. and didn’t find anything we liked in our price range. Then Hyrum suggested this wonderful, cool little pocket neighborhood he knew about near the airport called Westchester. At first I wasn’t too sure about living near the airport, but as soon as I saw it, I fell immediately in love with the neighborhood,” said Kelly.

But getting a house in Westchester wasn’t as easy as they hoped and their bids were rejected over and over again.

 “We finally found our house, but there were 11 offers on it. So the owners asked all of us to write a letter as to why we wanted it,” Hyrum said. He felt the picture he included of Kelly, pregnant with Griffin, really won the sellers over.

“We were very excited to get the house and have loved every minute since. I grew up in a very small town so I would often get homesick for that small hometown feeling. But honestly, Westchester has that same feeling I experienced growing up. Everyone is so friendly and the fun little local traditions make it more special. We love being close to the beach and close to LMU. It’s such a fun university to have within walking distance. It’s just a real special place. Westchester pride runs deep,” Kelly said.

 Hyrum added, “We are so blessed to be in this neighborhood.”

As a way to show gratitude, the family likes to give back. The Scout troop and Vivienne make cards for seniors to lift their spirits and assemble hygiene kits for the homeless. They also enjoy volunteering with their church. 

“The pandemic has reminded us not to take relationships for granted. Whenever I see friends outside these days, it’s great. Even though you’re wearing masks and can’t get close, it’s great to be reminded that we’re not alone,” Hyrum said.

“Sometimes it gets hard and we want to be with our friends and go back to baseball and everything else. Then we remember how lucky we are that we have such a beautiful community. We can go on walks and bike rides and see our friends and neighbors from afar. We always see people we know and that peps you up and gives you energy to keep you going,” Kelly said. “We’re surrounded by so many good friends and neighbors in this community that we never feel alone.”

By Consuelo Israelson. Photos by Zsuzsi Steiner.

Posted December 2020.