Helen Choi: Boston’s community pioneer

For the past 22 years, Helen Choi, a passionate and life-long social worker, has helped hundreds of individuals affected by domestic violence in Boston’s Chinese communities.  Currently the Advocate “Emeritus” at the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence (ATASK), Choi has been recently selected to receive the “Community Pioneer” Award by the Mayor’s Office of New Bostonians.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Choi attended Hong Kong Polytechnic and received a certificate in social work before immigrating to the United States with her family in 1987.  Once in Boston, she hit the ground running, working at the Asian American Civic Association (AACA) as the Multiservice Center coordinator. In a new country and adapting to a brand new culture, Choi was able to find a job in the industry that she had been working in.  Choi describes this transition in her own words: “Having worked as a social worker in Hong Kong for over 20 years, I worked with families and adolescents with behavioral problems and in correctional institutions. I felt fortunate to the Executive Director [of AACA], who gave me the opportunity to continue my work.”

At AACA, she regularly met women who were new immigrants or refugees and helped them attain services.  Some of these women were physically and verbally abused by their husbands, and she often times helped battered women find shelter.  It was here that Choi stepped forward and decided to specialize her social work in domestic violence, which in Choi’s words, is “really what I love to work with: seeing victims and children of domestic violence grow up to be independent, helping them recognize that domestic violence is a serious problem in the community, helping them seek shelter and feel like they have a support system, and helping them be free from violence.”

After 6 years working at AACA, Choi was recruited by Reverend Cheng Imm Tan to work as the first Chinese advocate at the Asian Shelter and Advocacy Project, ATASK’s core and flagship program in 1993.  Choi worked here for the next 17 years until retirement this past December.

For those women who are new to the country, coming forward to seek help in domestic issues is not an easy task.  Outreaching to individuals in Chinatown and the Greater Boston communities with large Asian populations such as Somerville, Quincy, Malden, Lowell, and Dorchester, Choi has witnessed a wide range of challenges that women face when it comes to abuse in the home.   Choi explains that most of time, women who are abused do not realize that there are people and organizations, such as ATASK, to help.

Abuse can sometimes go on for years, and women decide to stay with their husbands for the sake of their children, says Choi: “They have young children to take care of while the other partner is unwilling to give any support, so they have to think more carefully about their options. But when they know that there are resources out there, they will come out and encourage their friends to come out too.”  Most Asian women view their children as an important factor, and refuse to report any abuse.  Instead, they suffer alone until they come forward about their experiences.

Choi points out that a shelter specifically for Asian women is extremely important.  For immigrant and refugee victims of domestic violence, staying in a non-Asian shelter may expose the victims to cultural and language barriers.  The ATASK 7-room emergency shelter addresses this problem.  In 2009, the shelter served 54 women, men, and children and provided them with almost 6000 bed days.

Thanks to the work of advocates and their efforts over the years to outreach to the expanding Asian communities, more Asian women now know to call the multilingual ATASK hotline or the police when a domestic abuse issue arises.  Moreover, women are empowered to take action and seek help.  Advocates frequently visit hospitals, schools, and community organizations to facilitate trainings about domestic violence to staff members and bring the issue to the forefront.  “Staff members who show sensitivity to clients will help clients to be more comfortable and perhaps express signs and symptoms that they are being abused,” says Choi.  Recognizing these symptoms will further assist women in attaining the necessary resources faster.

Language skills are key to empowerment and community integration.  The biggest barrier, according to Choi, is language.  ATASK staff members and community-based advocates speak over 12 Asian languages to assist survivors of domestic abuse.  When women come to ATASK, they are encouraged to attend English classes to improve their language skills, followed by job skills and financial literacy so that when their kids are grown, they are able to enter the workforce.   Community-based advocates provide the clients with the support needed to help the survivors make the necessary changes that will eventually lead to a more secure life.

Earlier this year, ATASK nominated Choi for the “Community Pioneer” Award issued by the Mayor’s Office of New Bostonians.  As one of the We Are Boston Gala Awards, the Community Pioneer Award recognizes a community leader who has made an impact on Boston’s diverse communities, and inspires others to embrace the city’s immigrant heritage and multicultural richness.

“I was really surprised, actually,” says Choi, of her award.  “I was really honored because the community recognizes the advocacy work for domestic violence, especially in the Asian community.  Now more Asian families are aware of domestic violence in families.” On December 10th, Choi received her award alongside four other community leaders and key honoree Mrs. Victoria Kennedy, wife of the late Senator Edward Kennedy.

Over the years, Choi has proven to herself and to Boston’s Asian communities that she is a true pioneer in her field.  Linda Chin, president of ATASK, describes Choi as “one whose leadership and courage helped those who are less fortunate and paved the way for future community leaders to emerge…Helen has given hope to thousands of domestic violence survivors and made a difference in so many lives without much financial renumeration nor public acknowledgement.”

The impact that Choi leaves on her clients is long-lasting.  She maintains continued relationships with her clients, if they express the interest to do so.  Small group meetings give survivors of domestic violence an opportunity to talk about their lives and how their children are growing up.  The most heartwarming stories, says Choi, are those that involve women with children as young as one or two-years old seeking assistance from ATASK a number of years back, and now those children are in college or are already college graduates.  The success of the survivors of domestic violence and the transformation that they have shown reflect the deep and enduring impact that Choi’s advocacy work has had on the community.

Even during retirement, Choi chooses to take time to volunteer for consultations at ATASK when difficult cases arise.  In addition, she is spending more time with church services.  It is her hope that domestic violence be recognized more and that more funding be provided for front-line workers, whose work is essential to the continuation of the agency’s programs and services, but are always the group that is neglected.

For more information on the programs and services offered at ATASK, please visit www.atask.org.

For more information on the We Are Boston Gala Awards, please visit the City of Boston website at: http://www.cityofboston.gov/newbostonians/weareboston/

Joanne Wong is a Sampan correspondent.

ATASK's Advocate "Emeritus", Helen Choi. (Photo Courtesy of Helen Choi)

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