When Im Ja Choi arrived in the United States from Korea, she was 22 and had less than $15 in her pocket. Yet she found a way to obtain an advanced degree, displaying grit and determination that she drew on later in life when her mother became ill with stomach cancer. When the doctor recommended sending her mother to a nursing home for round-the-clock care, Choi responded with a definitive 'No' because her mother did not speak English or eat American food.
So Choi left her career in the financial field to care for her mother full time. She soon discovered that it was too big a job for one person, but she had a difficult time finding a home health aide who spoke Korean. When she finally found one—seven months into her search—she hired her immediately.
That is when the calls from Choi's friends seeking aides with similar abilities began pouring in. To meet the need for culturally sensitive home health care, Choi created Penn Asian Senior Services (PASSi), an organization that trains Asian-speaking home health aides and dispatches them to the homes of seniors who need help with cleaning, bathing, dressing, and preparing meals.
The goal is to help frail Asian American seniors stay in their homes as they age. Since it opened in 2005, the agency has grown to become one of the largest employers of Asian immigrants in the Philadelphia region, with more than 260 people on its payroll. It is just one of many entities Choi has created to help her community. In 1986, she helped start a domestic violence hotline for Korean American women, and in 1996, she founded a nonprofit group that provided women's multicultural and educational programs. Next, she wants to build a senior center and provide senior day care.
For her efforts to improve the lives of Asian American seniors, Choi has been named one of 10 recipients of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Community Health Leaders Award. The award honors exceptional men and women who have overcome significant obstacles to tackle some of the most challenging health and health care problems facing their communities. Choi received the award during a ceremony in Baltimore, Md., on November 9.
Diane Pirollo, vice president of foundation development at Methodist Hospital in Philadelphia, said Choi has helped seniors maintain their independence. "By establishing the first home health agency focusing on non-English-speaking Americans in the state of Pennsylvania, Im Ja has created a vehicle for delivering effective long-term health care for local Asian seniors," Pirollo said. "Now, Asian seniors who need someone's assistance can choose to remain at home, cared for in a language they understand, instead of going to nursing homes."