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Advocating for Health: Dr. Erik Szeto, Founder, Asian Health Service Center

Twenty-five years ago, Dr. Erik Szeto, a family physician, laid the groundwork for the establishment of the Asian Health and Service Center (AHSC) in Portland. What began as a social service center for Chinese immigrants and ethnic Chinese has expanded its scope to offer health and wellness services and resources for diverse Asian communities in multiple locations.

The center offers a broad range of services: from health seminars to Chinese medicine, behavioral and mental-health programs, a preschool program, and a host of senior social groups. Programs are available to more than 1,500 members of the local Asian-American community.

From its humble start at a shared facility of the Chinese Presbyterian Church, AHSC recently opened its new, larger activities center, and is gearing up for a 25-year anniversary celebration in the fall.

Revisiting the center’s evolution with Dr. Szeto reveals an organization that responds to the changing needs of a growing Asian-American community in the Portland area. In 1983, the center opened its doors to serve the needs of a growing yet underserved population of Chinese immigrants. Szeto saw how cultural and linguistic issues worked as barriers to access to community services and support for Chinese women and seniors.

"I’m a family physician. I found that there are lots of problems among Asians that aren’t being taken care of. Back then, assistance for immigrants — especially women, the elderly, and those with mental-health issues — was practically nonexistent," Szeto notes.

At the time, mental-health services for the Indo-Chinese community were provided to refugees coming from Southeast Asia. Programs were not tailored to immigrants. "The perception was that Asians have no problems. We take care of ourselves. We’re quiet and don’t cause a lot of trouble. People would ask me: ‘Is there enough need in the community for a center?’"

In the early 1980s, there was a huge need for social support for immigrant women from Asia who experienced domestic violence. For first-generation Chinese couples, the stress of adapting to a new life in the United States often caused marital conflicts. When family problems erupted, many immigrant women didn’t have a place to turn to for support.

Senior issues were another important focus. "Imagine coming to live in a different country in your 60s or 70s. Often, the elderly come here to take care of their grandchildren," says Szeto. "They don’t speak the language. Outside of their home, there’s no other place to go. Many senior immigrants suffer from isolation and loneliness."

Community members and leaders at the grand opening of AHSC's new facility

Szeto led a community group that advocated for a Chinese social service center. He credits the late Oregon Congresswoman Edith Green, who was instrumental in providing constructive feedback and making introductions to key people who could help get the project started.

“We started writing grant proposals to fund the project. I was a Biophysics major in college, so the first proposals weren’t very good. I brushed up on Writing 101, and improved quite a bit over time. Congresswoman Edith Green was very helpful: we had many long talks, and she encouraged me along the way. She even introduced me to key people at the Oregon Community Foundation.”

The project wasn’t an easy sell, because many in Portland doubted the need for a center that served Asian immigrants. “I remember people asking me: ‘Why do you want to start this center? The Chinese have no problems. You guys take care of yourselves and each other.’ I would always try and convince people that while our community works on solving our problems, we still need help. We can’t do all this on our own.”

Szeto’s determination to get funding for the project never wavered. To get public and private partners to come on board, supporters of the idea pounded the pavement to raise awareness about issues in providing culturally competent mental-health and other services to the community.

“Whenever people would ask me if there is a need for mental health services in the Chinese community, I responded with a famous joke: ‘Of course there are many crazy Chinese running around. Just look at me.’”

Dr. Erik Szeto (left) with Holden Leung, AHSC Executive Director (center)

When it first opened, AHSC was among a handful of culturally specific service organizations in the area. In approaching Multnomah County to support the plan to offer mental health services, Szeto and others hit another snag. “The county was a difficult arena to get into. I met with officials several times to approach them for funding.”

A Multnomah County report on services for at-risk seniors underscored the gap for services for Asian-Americans. There was one year when the report statistics showed that county-sponsored mental health services served only six Asians.

Then as now, the challenges of growing a nonprofit agency are immense, says Szeto. "Financial constraints caused us a few times to almost close our doors. But we managed to keep on top."

Navigating the political landscape of securing private grants and public funding is one of the hurdles that the group had to overcome. “Asians are not politically strong. One unfortunate aspect is that we don’t have a lot of help from the government. Asians don’t participate in politics as much, especially in Oregon. But I think that’s beginning to change. It’s almost like we have to constantly assert that we are here, and we need help. We are part of this society, we pay taxes – we deserve help,” says Szeto.

Over the years, the center tweaked and refined social service offerings to include programs for Asians from various ethnic backgrounds. ""As you know, some people think Asians are all the same. But we’re not. At the center, we’ve always wanted to expand our services for the benefit of the entire Asian community," says Szeto. "It was hard. We didn’t have money, we didn’t have a lot of volunteers.”

But Szeto knew that once the center succeeds in expanding capacity, it wouldn’t take long for the center to diversify its offerings. The center already had a growing knowledge base about needs in different Asian communities. “Even back then, we were practically international. We were serving many ethnic Chinese groups: Chinese-Lao, Chinese-Cambodian, Chinese-Vietnamese.”

Partnerships proved vital in the effort to establish programs that met the needs of different groups, such as Koreans and Vietnamese. To this day, the center is the only mental-health service center in the state to offer services specific to Chinese and Korean immigrants. “It’s important that we live up to our name,” says Szeto. ‘This is a place for all Asians. We wanted to emphasize that we are for everybody.”

Today, the breadth of program offerings shows how the center listens to the needs of the community. Classes for English learners emphasize practical, conversational English used for daily activities, such as filling out forms, returning merchandise, or scheduling appointments. Young children enrolled in Yu-Miao Preschool learn the Mandarin language and about Chinese culture. Health screenings are offered by volunteer medical providers at the center’s annual health fair.

Through vigorous grant-seeking efforts, AHSC has successfully secured foundation grants that allow it to meet a wide array of unserved needs, including programs that specifically target women’s health issues and the needs of seniors and their caregivers.

A Komen Community Grant funds AHSC’s Asian Breast Cancer Survivorship Program, which targets the growing number of Chinese and Korean community members who do not have access to breast cancer survivor services. AHSC anticipates serving 60 survivors directly through support groups and reaching about 800 women through outreach and education. The Breast Health Promotion Project — funded by Susan G. Komen for the Cure and the Avon Breast Cancer Fund — helps low-income women age 40 to 64 access free mammograms and pelvic exams. The project also offers support scheduling interpreters for medical appointments, and provides materials on breast health in Korean and Chinese women.

Support is also available to caregivers through the Asian Family Caregiver Program, funded by Washington County’s Department of Aging, Disability & Veteran Services. AHSC launched a comprehensive, culturally specific caregiver education and support program for the Asian community in Washington County. The program brings culturally appropriate education and training to caregivers and their family members.

Yet another AHSC program is Tea Link: A Community Engagement Program. Funded by the Northwest Health Foundation, it is a community engagement program that provides a social network for Asians isolated by language barriers in the Portland metropolitan area.

"I’m proud of what the center has accomplished over the years," says Szeto. "Twenty-five years in operation, and we continue to bring awareness to the general public about the needs of the Asian community. We have needs, and we deserve help."

Summer 2008 Colors of Influence || Share on Facebook

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Behavioral Health  

Yu Miao Preschool

Chinese Med Clinic

Public Health Programs

Breast Health


Cardiovascular Disease



Senior Programs

Beaverton Friday Group

Cantonese opera

Dance Club

Evergreen Club

Fu-Yo Club

Healthy Friends Club

Women Health Group

Community Classes

Chinese calligraphy

Chinese elaborate painting

Chinese landscape painting

English as a Second Language

Flower arrangement


Chair’s Partnership Award, Multnomah County

Public Health Heroes Award, Multnomah County

Achievement Award, United Way of the Columbia-Willamette

Certificate of Appreciation, Multnomah County Office of Emergency Management and Northwest Oregon Health Preparedness Organization

Certificate of Appreciation, National College of Natural Medicine

Model Program Award, Oregon Partnership to Immunize Children

Certificate of Appreciation, United Way of the Columbia-Willamette

Certificate of Appreciation, United Way of the Columbia-Willamette

Portland Harbor Public Health Award, Oregon Department of Human Services

Visit AHSC on the web


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