Talking community health with new ICHS CEO Kelli Nomura

Talking community health with new ICHS CEO Kelli Nomura
Talking community health with new ICHS CEO Kelli Nomura

International Community Health Services celebrates 50 years and new management

by Amanda Ong

Last November, Kelli Nomura stepped into the role of Executive Director of International Community Health Services (ICHS) following Teresita Batayola’s appointment to President Biden’s Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Advisory Commission, after 17 years in the position. Nomura comes into the position after working with Batayola and ICHS staff as a member of the ICHS board, and already knows the ins and outs of ICHS as well as the work it does, the challenges it faces and the services it provides. Nomura’s appointment to the role comes as ICHS celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

“I am truly honored to be in this position. And I look forward to leading the organization into the next 50 years, Nomura said in an interview with South Seattle Emerald.

Nomura grew up outside of Portland, Oregon. Her father was a doctor, so she learned early on the importance of health care and preventive health, as well as the importance of access to health care. From a young age, she knew she wanted to work in health. She earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University of Washington, where she connected with the King County Behavioral Health Organization where she would eventually work as a provider after graduation.

“I was able to work with members of our community who needed our care, and it was just something I connected with immediately,” Nomura said. “So this continued throughout my career to have that passion for community members who really need someone to advocate for them and make sure they have equal access … the low-income, underserved, uninsured population.”

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Nomura moved up in the behavioral health organization to leadership roles. After approximately 30 years as a direct service provider in the behavioral health system, she became director of the Behavioral Health and Recovery Division of King County, overseeing all behavioral health services for low-income, Medicaid and uninsured individuals throughout King County. She joined the ICHS board because she wanted to become aware of other areas of the medical health system for the Seattle communities, especially the AAPI community.

“I’ve been associated with or interested in the integration of behavioral health with medical care, because I think it’s so important to treat the whole person and not separate treatment of the head from the body,” Nomura said. “[ICHS is] obliged to offer these services in a culturally and linguistically appropriate manner. We all serve, that’s really where our mission is. [We make] making sure that members of the community, the AAPI community, as well as immigrants and refugees who don’t have access to health care, have a place to go.”

As ICHS approaches its 50th anniversary this year, history is fresh in Nomura’s mind. The anniversary marks a celebration, but also a reminder of why ICHS was founded — because 50 years ago, low-income, Asian immigrants in the Chinatown-International District had limited access to health care. And while ICHS is rooted in the Asian American community, the history of CID is all the more reason why it serves everyone, an understanding that is fundamental to Nomura’s approach as CEO.

“We have to be aware of the need in the communities that we may not be in, now that many of our patients travel to our clinics from different parts of King County and beyond,” Nomura said. “How do we give them easier access? And so where are we going to grow? Who should we collaborate with, and perhaps make our services more accessible [to] in several places?”

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Currently, many ICHS clients come from the South End. As ICHS has outgrown some of its current clinics, the organization hopes to create other clinic sites or other partnerships where it can serve community members closer to where they are. This will also create openings and accessibility in existing clinics.

Clinic expansion and partnerships aren’t the only ways Nomura is excited to help ICHS grow. Currently, she is excited about the expansion of the Healthy Aging & Wellness program for seniors and seniors, which was started a few years ago. There are many elders in the community who seek care from ICHS, and ICHS hopes to help these elders continue to be independent and stay in their communities and in their homes for as long as possible. Thus, ICHS is increasing services to support the elderly, increasing the Comprehensive Care for the Elderly (PACE) program, and hopefully increasing the current capacity of serving 100 seniors to serve close to 400.

Nomura approaches his work with a strong sense of ICHS’s mission, its impact and importance to a community that has relied on it for healthcare for 50 years now. Moreover, she approaches her work with a holistic sense of what health means.

“Health care is so important to everyone, regardless of where you are and where you come from,” Nomura said. “Health isn’t just limited to receiving medical, dental or behavioral health. There [are] as many things as allow [us] to stay healthy. [That] includes access to stable housing, income and employment, food and community connection, just making sure we’re supporting all the different social determinants of health that keep our communities whole.”

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Learn more about ICHS and its services through the ICHS website.

Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese-American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate in the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in Creative Writing and Ethnicity and Race Studies.

📸 Featured Image: Kelli Nomura comes to her new role as CEO of ICHS with over 30 years of experience in behavioral health in the Seattle area, including serving 12 years on the ICHS Board of Directors. (Image courtesy of International Community Health Services.)

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