Find Posts By Topic

Community Corner—Asian Counseling and Referral Service

Community Corner highlights the work of Seattle Human Services’ community partners in their own words. Our goal is to gather stories and photos that illustrate their amazing work on behalf of the people of Seattle. This post highlights Asian Counseling and Referral Service

What is the role your organization fulfills in your community?

Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) promotes the well-being and empowerment of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders and other underserved communities experiencing disparities – including immigrants, refugees, and American-born – by providing and advocating for innovative and effective community-based multilingual and multicultural services.

ACRS has a robust infrastructure, offering comprehensive safety net services and programs that include aging services for older adults, a food bank and meal program, behavioral health and wellness, employment and work training, citizenship and immigration assistance, youth development, and civic engagement.  With over 300 multilingual and multicultural staff members fluent in more than 40 languages, ACRS ensures clients are paired with professionals who understand their language, culture, and unique experiences. This alignment fosters effective healing, enabling clients to overcome trauma, attain physical well-being, and flourish within their communities.

ACRS members participating in a martial arts class at Club Bamboo senior center.How does your partnership with Seattle Human Services (HSD) assist you in that role?

ACRS’ partnership with Seattle Human Services Department is critical in supporting many of our programs like our nutrition programs which include the ACRS Food Bank and Emergency Feeding Program, and Senior Congregate Meals Program that brings culturally familiar food and meals to our community members who need them. HSD also supports programs that serve our seniors including our Club Bamboo Senior Center, Case Management Program for In-Home Care, Care Transitions, and Community Living Connections, all of which ensure older adults and adults with disabilities in the Asian and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander communities can access resources they need to maintain their quality of life and age in place by providing accessible, linguistically appropriate and culturally responsive services. Our Get Real and Pathways To Our Future programs for youth teach communication skills, conflict resolution, building healthy and respectful relationships, and leadership skills are also made possible through our partnership with HSD. Along with the financial resources that enable these programs and services, ACRS also values the ways HSD partners with ACRS in advocating for the needs of our community with the decision makers at the local, state and national levels to ensure the needs of A&NH/PI and other disadvantaged communities are heard and provided appropriate resources.

What is your organization’s origin story?

ACRS was founded in 1973 through grassroots efforts in response to the pressing need for culturally sensitive mental health care services for Asian Americans. Initially sparked by a group of volunteer UW social work students and community advocates, early ACRS pioneers recognized the risks these communities faced: misdiagnosis and inadequate care due to cultural unfamiliarity among service providers.

ACRS co-founder Dr. Sue Tomita, one of the first therapists in Seattle who provided ethno-specific mental health care to Asian Americans in the 1970s, recalls how her early outreach efforts started with conversation and a cup of green tea:

“Hypothesizing that Asians might seek mental health counseling if services were located in their own community, Dr. Lindbergh Sata (then CEO of Harborview Community Mental Health Center) instructed me to look for a place to do outreach work. The board of Blaine Memorial United Methodist Church (whose congregation included many Asian Americans) very quickly approved of the use of one classroom one evening a week for free counseling services. One day, Dr. Sata and I went to the church to look over the setting at the classroom and to examine its adequacy… On our way out, he took out a $20 bill and handed it to me, and said, “Buy some green tea…serve tea to the clients.” He was already thinking of how to comfort in a culturally appropriate manner someone who might be quite uncomfortable about seeking mental health care.

I went around the community to advertise this free service, and every Tuesday evening I made tea. No one came for many weeks, until one day, a woman came in and asked, “Is there really free counseling here?” … She became the first of a group of clients that our core group of volunteer counselors assisted during the first years.

That core group also included UW School of Social Work professor and ACRS co-founder Tony Ishisaka, who developed innovative training programs that enhanced the skills of social workers serving Southeast Asian refugees.

As the number of clients seeking counseling and other services grew, ACRS as a non-profit agency was established, evolving and responding to the needs of community members.  Its first office started in the basement of Blaine Memorial Methodist Church, then moved to multiple locations in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District as its staff grew. Today, ACRS has more than 300 multilingual staff members and offers comprehensive safety net services and programs at its main office in Seattle’s Rainier Valley.  The ACRS food bank in the heart of Seattle’s Chinatown-International District provides foods familiar to Asian diets and serves as a gateway to the services and programs available for food bank visitors.

ACRS clients in line at their foodbank.How has your organization grown or developed in recent years?

In 2023, the ACRS Food Bank relocated from its longstanding 600-square-foot mobile trailer to a new 5,500-square-foot space just three blocks away in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District. This new location offers much-needed storage capacity and an enhanced experience for the 5,250 annual visitors, providing an in-person shopping experience where patrons can select culturally familiar food items and produce. The number of walk-in visitors has surged to 300-500 per day, with the food bank now supplying 500 emergency meals weekly.

As an organization, ACRS has historically focused primarily on serving first-generation immigrants and refugees from Asian countries. However, over the years, it has expanded its services to better address the needs of marginalized and underserved residents across Seattle. Some of ACRS’s clients identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community or have involvement with the criminal justice system, necessitating specialized services and a heightened level of sensitivity. There is a growing acknowledgment of the profound diversity within our communities, recognizing the intersectionality of identities.

Following the racial reckoning sparked by the tragic events involving George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery in 2020, ACRS has reaffirmed its commitment to embodying its social justice values internally through the establishment of its Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity Belonging (EIDB) Program in 2023. This internal initiative promotes equity and inclusion across race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, immigration status, ability, socio-economic status, religious beliefs, and values. Our efforts are guided by a fearless examination of internalized racism, internalized colonization, and institutional practices. This includes:

  • Hosting cultural awareness activities and programs to encourage staff to confront their internal biases and promote social justice and anti-oppressive conduct.
  • Thoughtfully examining institutional policies and procedures that may perpetuate inequities among staff and the individuals we serve.
  • Implementing organization-wide education and wellness initiatives.
  • Establishing organizational policies to ensure equitable compensation, surpassing inequitable market pay rates, and prioritizing the mental health and well-being of staff while fostering a sense of belonging within the organization.

These goals and practices are assessed through a comprehensive staff-wide survey, conducted and evaluated by an external third party.

Why is it important for HSD and City of Seattle taxpayers to invest in community-led work?

Community organizations play a crucial role in ensuring that community groups facing disparities and barriers can access the human services and resources offered by the city, particularly during times of significant need. Each community presents its own set of unique challenges for its members, ranging from language barriers to issues of trust. Community organizations possess a profound understanding of these challenges and foster trusted relationships, enabling them to effectively support community members in navigating these obstacles. By incorporating the input and thought leadership of community leaders into decision-making processes, public decision-makers are better equipped to make informed choices, ultimately allowing the city to meet the needs of its communities more effectively. This, in turn, leads to improved outcomes for the city’s programs and services, fostering a stronger and healthier community overall.

How do your programs and services help to reduce the disparities experienced by people of color living in our region?

ACRS is dedicated to advancing social justice and cultural competency to address the impacts of racial inequities affecting Asian, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities. Our agency’s policies, programs, and services are designed to target and eliminate disparities experienced by the underserved communities we support, whether in their pursuit of livable wage jobs, self-sufficiency, or positive health outcomes.

With a 50-year presence in the community, ACRS has established itself as a credible and culturally competent organization delivering high-quality services to immigrant and refugee seniors. Our approach to outreach and relationship-building has been effectively demonstrated in recent years through expanded services for newer populations, including South Asian communities and emerging Bhutanese and Burmese refugee communities.  Our multilingual and multicultural staff of approximately 320 individuals collectively fluent in over 40 languages. They share the same language and cultural background as the communities they serve and are respected leaders and trusted figures within their own communities, successfully reaching and disseminating important information through their extensive networks.  This allows ACRS to reach more than 33,000 people a year.

Our work at ACRS extends beyond direct services to advocate for culturally competent systems of care. We actively engage in advocating for equitable access to services and the elimination of disparities by participating in multiple coalitions and advisory boards. Through civic engagement, education, and advocacy efforts, we encourage active involvement from our clients and other underrepresented communities. ACRS’s participation in the statewide annual APA Legislative Day, which convenes nearly 1,000 individuals in Olympia to meet with the Governor and Legislators, exemplifies our commitment to empowering communities of color and advocating for inclusive and equitable policies.

Tell us an example of how an HSD-funded program or service impacted the life of one of your community members?

During the pandemic, Club Bamboo participant Yuriko Ueda saw almost no one other than her husband due to the shutdowns. She couldn’t play pickleball or participate in other exercise activities. The lack of exercise started to impact her mobility, and at one point she had trouble gardening.  She heard about the virtual exercise classes offered at Club Bamboo and she started participating in their virtual Enhanced Fitness classes from the comfort of her home. ACRS provided tablets, laptops and digital training (including how to share emojis). Ueda and more than 60 other older adults were able to exercise, meditate and sing karaoke together over Zoom. Because online computing is referred to as “the cloud,” they call the virtual program “Cloud Bamboo.”  Ueda improved her mobility and the socialization eased her anxiety brought about from the isolation. Though Ueda was introduced to ACRS through Club Bamboo, having heard about the program’s inexpensive lunches from a friend, she also received citizenship help from ACRS’ citizenship program and was able to get her U.S. citizenship.

What motivates your staff or keeps you going? 

“It’s important that I’m doing something good to improve the condition of our community, especially those who share the same culture and language as me. I’m inspired by the people I work with working toward a common goal of ensuring our community members have what they need to thrive in our area. I consider it a privilege to continue the work our founders began a little over 50 years ago. We’ve accomplished so much in that time and there’s still a lot of work ahead of us,” said G de Castro, ACRS Deputy Director.