It was an emergency no one should have to suffer through. A family friend’s child comes down with a sudden acute medical problem. The parents have no health care coverage and don’t speak English. Panic-stricken, they call on a close friend, who makes a call to Group Health, the friend’s medical provider, to see whether the child should be rushed to the hospital. The friend is shocked that Group Health refuses to offer information or advice because of liability issues. Another call is made to International Community Health Services (ICHS) and a staff member and doctor quickly and skillfully talk the family through the crisis. It was this memory that later moved Ron Chew to apply for the position of executive director of the International Community Health Services Foundation, a job which Chew began on October 1.
The ICHS Foundation was established in 2007 to support the services of ICHS, the largest Asian Pacific Islander health care provider in the state. ICHS operates medical and dental clinics in the International District and Holly Park. As executive director of the Foundation, Chew, 57, will be responsible for spearheading fundraising activities and working with its board and ICHS CEO Teresita Batayola to develop new resources to fill the vacuum left by devastating cuts in public funding.
“The gap is huge so the challenge is going to be great,” said Chew. “But, I’ve got a incredible team, a terrific agency, and I like challenges.”
Chew noted that one of the first freelance projects he worked on after leaving the Museum was an oral history publication and video documentary for ICHS’s 35th anniversary. “In retracing the history of the agency, I was moved by the commitment, courage and heart of its people,” said Chew. “Now, working with the Foundation, I felt honored to help build on what others worked so hard to create and sustain.”
Chew is not a rookie to seemingly insurmountable challenges. As former executive director of the Wing Luke Asian Museum, he headed up efforts to raise over $23 million dollars in an unprecedented capital campaign to renovate a historic building in the International District into a home for the only pan-Asian Pacific American community-based museum in the country. While Chew was unswerving in his goal, he had many doubters who believed that his goal was too ambitious. The grand re-opening of the new museum, at its new location in the East Kong Yick building, just blocks away from its original location, took place on May 31, 2008.
Chew also served as editor in chief of The International Examiner in the late 1970s and through most of the 1980s, winning praise for his coverage of the infamous 1983 Wah Mee massacres in Seattle’s Chinatown/ID and the 1981 murders of two Filipino American cannery union activists, Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes. Chew helped transform the newspaper into a non-profit community-based media source, a pan-Asian journalistic model ahead of its time.
After leaving the Wing Luke Asian Museum, he has worked as an instructor for the University of Washington’s graduate program in museology, teaching the “community-based museum model” and “relationship-based fundraising”. At the same time, he has been running his own consulting firm, Chew Communications, most recently issuing two oral history publications on API seniors for the National Asian Pacific Center on Aging and a book on the history of Nikkei Concerns. The flexibility of his work has allowed him to continue to concentrate on his responsibilities as a single parent to his two sons, Cian, 15, and Kino, 12. “Truthfully, that’s been a lot more challenging and rewarding than anything I’ve ever done in my community work,” he said.
Those who know Chew are not surprised by his decision to begin work at ICHS: he’s always been driven by a lifelong passion for community service.
“This is a really fragile time for health care, but I see on a daily basis the urgent value of the agency because that’s where our immigrant families and seniors go for medical and dental care,” said Chew. “Many of them have no other place to go. My mom, especially in her later years, relied on the agency all the time because of the bilingual staff and quality of care and service.”
Chew is known for his diplomatic and fair approach to cultivating relationships that turn into life-time friendships, but also for his fearless team-oriented style. Chew will draw on over 30 years of management, community-building skills and mentorship to bolster ICHS’s capacity to serve the health needs of disadvantaged and marginalized communities. And ICHS will need it.
State and city cuts to health programs such as the Basic Health Plan have put at risk ICHS’s ability to serve its current client base. Chew acknowledges the uphill battle, but is confident. “This is too important a cause to just throw up our hands and walk away,” Chew said.
Returning to Community Work
At the same time that Chew has returned to community work at ICHS, he noted that he will finish a project very close to his heart, one that has sat unfinished for over 30 years. In 1981, at the time of the Domingo-Viernes murders, Chew had been collaborating with Viernes on publication of a book on the history of Asian laborers in the Alaska canneries. The book would have been based on a seven-part series first printed in the International Examiner.
“Those murders tore a hole in the heart of the community and sent a chill over the lives of those of us who knew them, a chill that still lingers to this very day,” Chew said. “Gene was one of my closest friends. I couldn’t finish the book.” Even though community members contributed money for Chew to complete the book right after the murders, he donated the money instead to the Committee for Justice for Domingo and Viernes to support efforts to prosecute those responsible for the murders.
Now, with the 30th anniversary of the Domingo-Viernes murders approaching next year, Chew will at last be finishing the book, which will include oral histories of family and community members at the center of the tragedy. He will be receiving funding support a fund from the sale of old cannery union hall in Pioneer Square, where Silme and Gene, were murdered. The Seattle Channel will be collaborating in a producing a documentary in conjunction with the book project.
“It’s time to gather the stories, connect them and complete the healing,” said Chew. “The legal cases were settled, the murderers brought to justice, but what people never saw was the other story beneath the surface – the silent place where people’s lives were changed forever, including my own. That’s the chapter I’m hoping to help write.”