Asian Counseling and Referral Services: Culture-Centered Care

By United Way of King County, on May 24, 2024 | In News, Racial Equity

May is Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month! According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month began as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week in 1978 with a joint congressional resolution. Congress expanded the observance to one month in 1992, renaming it Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

In 2022, the Biden administration designated May as “Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month,” reportedly to bring broader visibility to Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities.

During this year’s Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, United Way of King County spotlights Asian Counseling and Referral Service, or ACRS, which for more than 50 years has provided local communities with a broad array of behavioral health programs, human services, and civic engagement activities.

ACRS is a member of the Racial Equity Coalition, a group of 14 nonprofit organizations of color that create communities of belonging for youth of color. The coalition offers after-school programs that celebrate their cultural identities and equip them with the tools to stay engaged in school.

Imagine visiting a doctor, emergency room, or urgent care facility and feeling unsure or doubtful that you’ll be appropriately diagnosed. What if the medical providers’ preconceived notions or lack of knowledge about you or your background got in the way, and as a result, they ended up prescribing the wrong treatment?

That is what led a group of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to the basement of Seattle’s Blaine Memorial United Methodist Church in the early 1970s.

Students, activists, and community leaders who were fed up with the possibility of being misdiagnosed when they sought mental health services began a grassroots effort to empower their communities on the heels of the social justice movements sweeping the country.

The result was the Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS), a Seattle-based organization that promotes social justice and the well-being and empowerment of Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and other underserved communities.

The group’s founding board members included David Okimoto, a former United Way senior vice president and former United Way board member.

Today, ACRS annually serves about 35,000 people—including immigrants and refugees—with a continuum of care primarily through 14 major programs, including Behavioral Health and Wellness, Aging Services for Older Adults, Employment and Training Services, and Recovery Services.

Clients are usually served by staff who speak the same language and come from the same culture.

ACRS also provides Children’s, Youth, and Family programs supported by bilingual and bicultural Asian American and Pacific Islander counselors.

These programs help youth succeed and thrive in their communities and beyond.

Thanks to ACRS, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, Native Hawaiians, and other communities need not worry about receiving improper care, as did generations before them. ACRS says it helps clients navigate mainstream society while maintaining their cultural identities.

“ACRS started very small in the basement of Blaine Church in 1973 when some leaders saw that there was a need for mental health services and other health services,” said Leslie Stone, ACRS youth development director. She added that United Way of King County gave ACRS its first grant–$3,000, to provide mental health services. “During that time, there was also the Vietnam War, and there were a lot of protests with people out in the streets fighting for social justice issues. And those were the roots of our programming.”

Stone said ACRS offers a holistic approach to addressing community needs by providing a food bank, citizenship, and employment services. Though based in Seattle, ACRS also has offices in Kent and Bellevue.

David Okimoto, a former United Way senior vice president and former United Way board member, is also one of ACRS’s founding board members.

“We want to empower wellness for our community members,” Stone said. “Our focus is Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander; however, we serve many communities. We have different immigrant and refugee communities that decide to come to our agency. We are very intentional about hiring community members that are of the community and speak the languages.”

Stone helps lead ACRS youth work, which includes a Youth Job Readiness Training program, a Youth Substance Disorder program, and a Youth Mental Health Counseling program.

Then there’s Get Real, ACRS’s longest-running program for youth. Get Real is an intervention program for middle school students. Often, those who graduate Get Real and go on to high school are recruited and trained by ACRS to mentor middle school students.

“We teach youth about domestic violence and sexual assault prevention,” said Stone. “I really wish that kind of program was around when I was a teenager. With middle school, you have to have a different approach, so it’s really teaching healthy communication skills, boundaries, and red flags in dating relationships or in other important relationships in your life.”

ACRS is one of 14 organizations of color that comprise the Racial Equity Coalition. Through United Way, the coalition offers after-school programs that help youth celebrate their cultural identities and equip them with the tools to stay engaged in school.

With Racial Equity Coalition, Stone said, “We are taking so many agencies of color and providing the time to be in community and space with each other and saying, ‘What are your struggles? What are your challenges? What is working for your agency, and what can we do differently to engage our youth?’”

To learn more about Racial Equity Coalition, click here.  


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