ASIAN SERVICES IN ACTION was founded in 1995 to address the needs of a small but growing Asian American community in Akron. The non-profit agency expanded in response to a refugee stream and soon developed into the largest human services agency in the Asian American/Pacific Islander community (AAIP) of Ohio. By 2020, its 15th year in operation, ASIA was running two federally-authorized health clinics—one in Cleveland and another Akron. In addition, it was offering family counseling, translation services, senior programming, entrepreneurship training and micro loans in both cities. Much like the settlement houses of Cleveland’s past, ASIA became both a guide and advocate for new Americans from a specific region of the world. But it took on many of the larger challenges of assimilation, becoming a primary healthcare provider to refugee families from disparate cultures.
ASIA provides its services to anyone, but specializes in meeting the language and cultural needs of those of Asian and Pacific Islander descent. To many in the region’s emerging Mon, Karen, Bhutanese and Burmese communities, ASIA has served as the doctor, the translator and the community organizer in their new home.
Four friends, all professional women, started the group in Akron 1995. They were hoping to reach out to a culture whose members were often reluctant to ask for help. One of the founders, May Chen, was a resettlement supervisor for the International Institute of Akron, which was resettling refugees from United Nations refugee camps in Southeast Asia. Chen was aware that the new arrivals faced a bewildering experience and that resettlement agencies often neglected to address many of their educational, social and health issues. She was specially motivated to help. Her parents had fled communist China for Hong Kong and she sympathized with people forced to flee their homelands. Chen became ASIA’s first executive director. The agency started with modest ambitions, focusing on afterschool tutoring for children and providing health prevention programs for their parents. But as the immigrant community grew, so did ASIA, as Chen garnered supporters and key recruits.
In 2003, Michael Byun, a young Korean American with a background in community organizing, joined the agency as a program manager. He played leadership roles for the next 15 years—serving as deputy director and finally CEO—before leaving the agency in 2018. Byun led ASIA’s expansion to Cleveland, where the Asian immigrant community was growing rapidly with refugees. Between 2010 and 2018, more than 8,000 Bhutanese refugees were resettled in Ohio and nearly 900 moved to Cleveland. Secondary migration from other areas of the country swelled the number of Bhutanese residents in Northeast Ohio to more than 4,000, according to local refugee service officials. The new arrivals needed basic health services in languages seldom heard before in the region. ASIA staff became aware of earlier arriving Chinese immigrants taking eight-hour bus trips to New York City to see doctors who spoke their language.
In 2013, ASIA opened its International Community Health Center, ICHC, in rental space in Cleveland’s ASIATOWN. The clinic sought to offer linguistically and culturally appropriate healthcare to the new arrivals. In 2016, ASIA opened a second clinic near downtown Akron.
By 2018, the agency was serving 58,000 clients and patients through more than 60 programs and services annually, with a language capacity of some 55 ethnic dialects.
In 2019, Elaine Tso became ASIA’s third chief executive officer, succeeding Byun. An attorney from the Filipino American community, Tso had served ASIA as a board member, board president and interim CEO. As CEO of ASIA, she directed a staff of nearly 80 supported by a budget of about $5.5 million. Also in 2019, ASIA opened a new Akron services center, the C.F. and May Chen Community Center, named for May Chen and her husband, Chun Fu Chen. The new center housed all of ASIA’s Akron’s health and social services in a single complex near North Hill, the heart of the city’s Asian immigrant community.
As of 2019, ASIA planned to open a newly renovated health clinic in Asia Plaza in Cleveland’s AsiaTown in 2020.
Robert L. Smith