Founders from the Korean Community
The origin of Access Alliance can be found in a need. In 1983, Toronto’s Public Health Unit issued a notice in newspapers to call for a community consultation with the aim to develop primary care services that were linguistically and culturally appropriate. The meeting drew representatives from ten ethno-cultural organizations from across Toronto who recognized the importance of having primary health care be accessible to their communities.
This consultation turned into a task force spearheaded by four delegates: Ilda Furtado represented the Portuguese-speaking community, Duyet Nguyen represented the Vietnamese-speaking community, Mauricio Perez represented the Spanish-speaking community, and Sung Hak Choi represented the Korean community.
“I wasn’t afraid. I was an activist, I think,” said Sung Hak Choi while snow drifted outside a window at AccessPoint on Jane where we met for an interview. Sung Hak Choi wasn’t afraid, and she wasn’t alone. The task force met over months, which turned into years, which turned into nearly a decade. There were, Sung Hak said, “many many meetings. I don’t know how many meetings.” They advocated and agitated, liaised with politicians and made a deputation to the Minister of Health. Sung Hak also boldly cold called hospitals, politicians, knocked on doors and demanded health services that were linguistically accessible to Toronto’s newcomer communities. “I am really proud of what we did at the beginning,” says Sung Hak Choi, “especially because the founding members spoke English as a second language, except for maybe Ilda.”
In 1982, Sung Hak Choi and her husband, Andrew, immigrated to Toronto. Sung Hak had been a trailblazing nurse with a Master’s in Public Health and Andrew had held various diplomatic posts with the Korean foreign ministry in China and Japan. They moved to Toronto as their children were headed to university and recognized the difficulties of adapting to a new place. There were no interpretation services in hospitals at the time. Instead, a general call to staff and hospital patrons would be made over the PA system calling for a speaker of the needed language to help out. These were the informal systems in place that weren’t really systems at all. Sung Hak saw this and recognized it as a major barrier for newcomers to access safe and thorough health care. “That was the beginning,” said Sung Hak, “that was not long ago.”
The founding members had an acute first-hand knowledge about why language and culture were vital considerations in planning primary care services for newcomers. They also encountered people in government who understood this need. Sung Hak recounted a particular appointment she made with Public Health and a member of the federal government. “Betsy Chow,” she said of the federal government representative, “I still remember her name.” Both officials, Sung Hak said, “were of Chinese background, so they understood the problem. They guided us to the correct departments to approach to make [Access Alliance] happen.”
Ultimately, in 1989, approval for funding was granted and the doors to the first primary care clinic foregrounding linguistic and cultural needs opened at Palmerston Avenue and College Street to serve the Korean, Spanish, Portuguese and Vietnamese-speaking communities in Toronto. An interpretation service was established with a team of dedicated volunteers and the clinic employed language aligned doctors and tailored services to those communities’ needs.
“He was the first interpreter at Access Alliance,” Sung Hak said pointing to her husband, Andrew. “Japanese, Korean and Chinese. Three languages!”
“I realize that it’s important to emphasize new immigrants’ rights to be treated fairly in a new adopted country because everybody should be equal in pay – not only in taxes, but in receiving benefits from the authorities. Awareness of the importance of those aspects, we stood for the community,” Andrew said, speaking slowly and deliberately, like a good interpreter.
Andrew Choi describes how he prepared to interpret for a cochlear implant.
In the year 2000, in the context of the changing demographics of the city, Access Alliance’s Board of Directors elected to direct the organization’s efforts and resources away from four specific cultural groups and towards residents of Toronto who faced the most barriers to accessing health care as newcomers or refugees. The present Executive Director of Access Alliance, Axelle Janczur, a former volunteer interpreter herself, had recently joined the organization. “When Axelle arrived at Access Alliance, I think it begsn to explode and develop into an extensive organization,” said Andrew.
In 1999, Access Alliance moved to its current location at 340 College Street, and in 2002, Access Alliance began to direct efforts to community based research to better advocate for the needs of clients. In 2010, AccessPoint on Danforth opened, and in 2011, the west satellite location to the College site, AccessPoint on Jane, opened. Primary care initiatives have grown since 2010 such as the school-based Paul Steinhauer Clinic in the east, a partnership with a women’s shelter, and the founding of the Non-Insured Walk-In Clinic in 2012.
“You know,” said Axelle Janczur, “from one year to the next, you might not see change, but over a 30 year span, I know you can see the change.” One seismic shift that was achieved in no small part because of the early advocacy, organizing and volunteer interpreters from Access Alliance is all hospitals now have a budget for interpretation services. “That is the result of people like you, [Sung Hak], and Andrew. I think we can all be very proud of how we have achieved system change.”
Sung Hak and Andrew not only had rich working lives contributing to their community and laying ground for better, more inclusive health services, but they also gained a son…in-law. “When I was working at Access Alliance, my daughter used to pick me up. There was a doctor at Access Alliance, they became friends. Now they are married. So he’s my son! That’s a very famous story,” Sung Hak said.
The origin of Access Alliance in the vision and tenacity of Sung Hak Choi, Ilda Furtado, Duyet Nguyen, and Mauricio Perez ought also to be a famous story.