Two winters ago, Setsuko Irei fell out of bed and spent days on the floor of her Burien apartment, unable to move. No one heard her cries for help.
Her friends in Club Bamboo, a health and wellness program for low-income seniors with limited English, noticed Irei’s uncharacteristic absence and became concerned. They notified the club’s program coordinator, a staff member at Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) in Seattle’s Rainier Valley. The coordinator called 911.
When first responders forced open her door, Irei thought to herself, “Oh, I’m still alive. Thank God.” She spent the next two weeks in the hospital and two weeks after that in a nursing facility.
Irei, who turned 86 last month, credits ACRS and the community she’s found there with saving her life.
The agency is one of 12 social-service agencies serving seniors, families and children in King County that benefits from The Seattle Times’ annual Fund for the Needy, now in its 41st year. Since the fund’s inception, readers have donated more than $25 million, with the newspaper covering operating costs. During the 2018-2019 philanthropy drive, about 3,800 donors together gave nearly $1.5 million, a sum The Seattle Times hopes to exceed by $500,000 this holiday season.
ACRS got its start in a church basement 46 years ago when a group of social-work students and leaders from Seattle’s Asian and Asian American community came together to provide mental-health services to refugees and immigrants traumatized by war, genocide and dislocation. Many of those early clients were misdiagnosed and in some cases, institutionalized, by medical professionals who didn’t understand their cultures or their particular challenges following long, arduous journeys to the U.S., said ACRS executive director Michael Byun, 45, who was a baby when he and his parents immigrated from South Korea.
“We provide social services and health services but we’re deeply rooted in social-justice work, and in our 46-year history that’s always been front and center in our work each day,” said Byun, who took over the helm of ACRS a year ago after the retirement of longtime director Diane Narasaki. “We are committed to the health and well-being of this community and we have to fight for them in a system that may be discriminatory or racist, or where there are (language and cultural) barriers.”
From that church basement, ACRS operated out of different offices in Seattle’s Chinatown International District before moving into a 44,000-square-foot building on Martin Luther King Jr. Way South a decade ago. Byun — who grew up in Puyallup, earned two degrees from the University of Washington, and worked for 16 years as the chief executive officer of Asian Services in Action in Cleveland, Ohio — remembers visiting the building when it first opened and wondering if ACRS would be able to fill the space.
“Fast forward 10 years, and we’re bursting at the seams,” Byun said of the building that houses a medical clinic, pharmacy, therapy rooms, classrooms, an industrial kitchen and a full-size gymnasium.
ACRS, with an annual budget of $23 million, offers more than a dozen programs and each year serves 35,000 people, mostly from the Asian and Pacific Islander communities. The agency, whose nearly 300 staff members together speak 40 different languages and dialects, also organizes the annual Walk for Rice fundraiser in Seward Park to fight hunger and last year gave out 1 million pounds of food, including rice, soy milk, tofu and noodles, through its own food bank and 26 other ACRS nutritional-program sites across Seattle and King County.
ACRS operates with a “no wrong-door approach,” Byun said, explaining that someone may initially come for citizenship classes or employment services, only for staff to realize that same person faces food insecurity. Or a young person might join a young men or women’s group, and the staff learns that he or she has a grandparent isolated at home who could benefit from the agency’s other programs.
For Irei, the death of her husband, Tom, a dozen years ago brought about her introduction to ACRS, where she first went to practice her English. Since then, she’s become a beloved fixture, taking three buses from Burien to Seattle five days a week to attend a variety of exercise classes — yoga, Zumba and line dancing among them — and to socialize over lunches of shrimp fried rice or noodle soup with fish and coconut milk.
Known by her nickname, “Ms. Suki,” Irei was 12 years old during the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific theater during World War II.
“It was so long ago, it’s confusing,” she said, but added that it was a terrible time and resulted in many sad stories of death and loss.
While there used to be a whole table of Japanese seniors who regularly participated in Club Bamboo, Irei said she’s now one of only three. But she’s made friends with people from Vietnam, China, Cambodia and the Philippines.
She keeps coming back to ACRS, she said, “because people are so nice and everybody is warm-hearted to us.”
Ro Lim has found the same sense of belonging.
As a child, Lim survived the Khmer Rouge killing fields that led to the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians in the mid-1970s. His father was executed by the communist regime and four of his siblings died from starvation.
After coming to the U.S. with his mother, stepfather and older sister, he struggled to get an education and find work. And he was haunted by memories of his childhood.
“I tried to kill myself,” he said. “I try to brush it away, but it’s still there.”
In 2008, Lim was convicted for assaulting his girlfriend with a steak knife. His drinking and gambling had gotten out of control and following his arrest in Tukwila, an ACRS case worker came to see him in jail. Later, after winding up behind bars a second time for violating his probation by refusing to take his medications, a judge ordered Lim to attend clean-and-sober classes at ACRS. He said therapy and medication have quieted the violent voices in his head.
Sober now for years, Lim, 46, works as a certified peer specialist, helping other ACRS clients — mostly those from Cambodia and Laos — fill out medical paperwork, navigate computers and work toward gaining their U.S. citizenship. His Fridays are spent distributing food from ACRS’ food bank in Seattle’s Chinatown International District to a food bank in Kent, providing the staples that make up Asian and Pacific Islander diets.
“When I look back, it starts little by little and it adds up,” Lim said, reflecting on his recovery. “I feel like I want to be positive for the community, I want to give back what they’ve given to me. I feel appreciated and I feel love around me.”