May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month! At the Diverse Elders Coalition, we try to lift up the stories of AAPI elders every month of the year, but we are especially interested this month in highlighting the work of AAPI advocates. We interviewed Eun Jeong Lee, the National SCSEP Director at the National Asian Pacific Center on Aging (NAPCA). Read on to learn about NAPCA, SCSEP, and what Eun Jeong is doing to support workforce readiness for AAPI older adults.
Tell me a little about yourself.
I was born in Incheon, South Korea and lived there until I moved to the United States at age 30 to get my PhD. The first place I lived in the United States was New York, and the first job I had there was a counselor and outreach coordinator at the Korean American Family Service Center, an agency serving victims of domestic violence and their children. I started working at NAPCA in 2009, first as the Los Angeles Center Director and then moved to Seattle in 2010 to work as the National SCSEP Director. I’ve lived in Seattle for the past seven years, and it’s a really great place to live and raise a family. We go camping every summer, we do water sports, things like that.
In addition to my work with NAPCA SCSEP, I am also collaborating with academic institutions to conduct several research studies about financial well-being, elder mistreatment, caregiving, and heart health in Asian American and Pacific Island (AAPI) communities. I would also like to highlight NAPCA’s Healthy Eating Healthy Aging project, funded by Walmart Foundation to provide nutrition training to AAPI seniors nationwide. The materials for this program were translated into seven different languages, including Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Khmer, Tagalog, Samoan, and Vietnamese, to serve limited English proficient seniors in nine states.
Why did you decide to become an aging advocate?
I started working in aging in 2004, when I was made the New York SCSEP Director for Korean Community Services of Metropolitan New York. As soon as I started that job, I fell in love with the program. The seniors in the program really wanted to learn, despite their challenges. They were making such incredible effort to learn a new language, a new culture, and I really liked being able to encourage them.
Can you tell me a little bit more about SCSEP?
SCSEP stands for the Senior Community Service Employment Program, a program that provides subsidized job training to low-income seniors ages 55 and older. NAPCA focuses on employment for AAPI communities, and we serve seven different states with our SCSEP programming: Washington, California, Texas, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois. Last year, we grew from nine project sites to sixteen project sites, serving twice the number of older adults that we have served in the past. This has been a great opportunity for NAPCA to extend our services and reach more low-income AAPI seniors within our service areas.
I think that SCSEP is a really important program, because it provides not only job training, but also community service. SCSEP participants are working in community services organizations, like libraries, schools, senior centers, day care centers, and other social service agencies. Additionally, many organizations serving AAPI communities are actually host agencies for the SCSEP program, which allows us to provide training and services in the languages that AAPI community members speak.
SCSEP is the only federally subsidized job training program for older workers. For AAPI seniors, it has even greater value. These elders have language barriers, cultural barriers, and limited work experience in the United States, but they still need to work and support themselves. SCSEP is an opportunity for them to learn new skills, learn new culture, and accumulate work experience — and get paid.
What is the biggest challenge facing AAPI older adults, and how can our readers help?
The FY18 budget proposal from the White House does not provide a lot of support for programs that support older adults. In fact, the SCSEP program is targeted for complete elimination. These programs are so essential for AAPI older adults to live an independent life. NAPCA is currently in discussions to figure out the best way to respond to budget cuts that threaten our communities’ wellbeing. We work with nearly 800 community service organizations through the SCSEP program, and we plan to have an advocacy campaign that will allow them to speak up about the importance of SCSEP to their communities. As a national organization, NAPCA’s responsibility is to raise the voices of AAPI older adults, and we are prepared to do that in defense of the programs that improve their lives.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.