ACRS a vital safety net for community

From left to right: ACRS Capital Campaign Manager Elisa Del Rosario, ACRS President Kim Tran and ACRS Executive Director Diane Narasaki. Photos provided by the Vietnamese American Bar Association, the Puget Sound Business Journal, and are also taken by George Liu.

By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly

One organization has certainly outgrown its original location in 1973 – the basement of Blaine Memorial United Methodist Church in Seattle’s Beacon Hill district. Back then, 25 pioneers volunteered their time to provide a much needed multilingual mental health service to 77 clients.

By the end of this year, the Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) will help about 23,000 Asian Pacific Americans, some coming from as far away as Spokane, Bellingham and Vancouver.

Now, its new 82,000-square-foot headquarters in the Rainier Valley is “in the heart of our client base,” said ACRS Executive Director Diane Narasaki. “Our advocacy efforts and services are strengthened in this location. It is what we had envisioned: a healing place that is full of energy and life, a place that brings our community together and builds and strengthens it.”

As a supporter and comprehensive service provider to the community for the last 35 years, the agency will receive a Top Contributor Award from the Northwest Asian Weekly Foundation in December.

“I envision ACRS remaining true to its mission of promoting social justice and the well-being and empowerment of the Asian Pacific American individuals, families and communities, especially our most vulnerable community members, through advocacy and innovative community-based, multilingual services,” she added.

More than 500 volunteers and interns work with ACRS’ 200 employees to provide its clients – mostly Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino and Korean — with a total of 13 services. Narasaki said, “What makes ACRS valuable is our holistic approach to our clients.”

Five months ago, ACRS’ vocational and naturalization department opened Everclean, a new residential and commercial cleaning service offering job training and employment to six clients. Vocational training is also offered through 15 new computers in the agency’s new computer lab.

There is a new recovery services — including chemical dependency and gambling addiction — program. Club Bamboo is a brand new activity and meal program designed to allow older Asian Pacific American adults to enjoy Vietnamese stick exercise, tai chi, yoga and ballroom dancing. “We hope that this will grow and flourish as a resource for our community,” said Narasaki.

“ACRS builds self-sufficiency with culturally appropriate programs,” adds Kim Tran, an ACRS board member for the last three years.

In 2007, about 700 immigrants and refugees took naturalization classes at ACRS. Of that number, just over 100 will become U.S. citizens.

Tran, an attorney specializing in employment law and a shareholder at Stafford Frey Cooper, teaches one of ACRS’ naturalization classes for those who speak advanced English. Held two nights a week, her class has about 20 students.

She said about her students, “They work very hard, and since 1999 when I started, dozens of my students have become citizens, and I think only three or four have failed the naturalization test.”

While most of her students learn everything necessary to pass the test, “they’re very nervous about speaking English, and it’s the nerves that will get to them more than anything,” Tran admits. ACRS provides mock interviews — anywhere from three to 25 — with a “native Asian speaker who has an Asian face” to help them feel less nervous. It also provides assistance with filling out applications and handling other immigration documents.

“They’ve been wanting to vote, and with the upcoming election, it’s just so exciting for them now to finally be a part of it,” she said.

Elisa Del Rosario became the agency’s capital campaign director in the fall of 2002, starting the construction process with a feasibility study. Two years later, she began the fundraising for ACRS’ new building. She and others raised $19.2 million in government funding, in private donations and a loan, which was enough to finance the building’s completion and the grand opening two months ago.

“The campaign is really to better serve the Asian Pacific community,” she said. “The location of the building is accessible by bus, and eventually, light rail. There’s over 150 parking spaces for staff and clients.”

With a larger building, ACRS is now able to expand its services and accept more clients and volunteers.

“I see us continuing to reach more of our Asian Pacific American communities locally, statewide and nationally,” said Narasaki. “ACRS has also been looked to as a model for multilingual and multicultural services internationally. We will continue to share what we have learned with others, here and around the world.” ♦

For more information about Asian Counseling and Referral Service, visit www.acrs.org.

James Tabafunda can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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