Born in 1948, Im Ja Choi came to the U.S. from Korea in 1971, straight out of college. She went into real estate, worked as a broker for 20 years, segued into the finance industry, and earned her M.S. in Organizational Dynamics in 1995 from the University of Pennsylvania. Nothing prepared her, however, for the challenge of dealing with caring for her aging mother, who was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2003. The biggest problem: the language barrier. None of the staff at the Philadelphia hospital where her mother was being treated spoke Korean, and Ms. Choi’s mother spoke no English.
When it came time to place her mother in a nursing home, she realized that such a move would be unworkable without some way of bridging the language and cultural barriers. She decided to put her career on hold, care for her mother by herself, and look for someone who spoke Korean to help her out. As reported in a story in the New York Times, it took her seven months to find a Korean-speaking care-giver. Ms. Choi believed that her experience was not unique, and that there was clearly a need to train care-givers who could service the aging immigrant Korean population. In 2004, she founded Korean American Senior Services of Pennsylvania to address the problem, and trained 42 Korean-speaking care-givers for 36 clients in the first year.
As her agency grew, Ms. Choi realized that there was a wider population of Asian Americans from many different countries who required similar services. She expanded and re-branded the organization as Penn Asian Social Services (PASSi) and it now provides services in ten languages, serving approximately 400 clients in the greater Philadelphia region. Starting originally with just two part-time employees, Ms. Choi’s career reinvention pivot has become one of the largest employers of Asian immigrants in the region, with a staff of more than 260 people.
Ironically, Ms. Choi faced an uphill battle with local health officials, who did not believe that her services were even needed. Their logic: they were receiving no calls from patients requesting such services. As Ms. Choi points out, it was the language barrier that prevented patients from calling in, not a disinterest in receiving the services.
In addition to sourcing care-givers who could service the Asian community, Ms. Choi founded a licensed vocational school in 2006, Penn Asian Vocational Institute (PAVI to train entry-level caregivers.
In 2012, PASSi and Ms. Choi were recognized with a Purpose Prize by Encore.org, the non-profit policy and leadership organization that recognizes social entrepreneurs over 60. She has also received the Robert Wood Johnson Community Health Leader Award, a Women of Distinction award from the Philadelphia Business Journal, and the Ellis Island Medal of Honor from the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations (NECO).
Ms. Choi is yet another example of someone who was willing to completely turn their life around in order to follow and realize a particular vision. Rather than shrinking from such challenges later in life, using our age as an excuse, we can use experiences like Ms. Choi’s to give us the courage we need to engage with big projects and to realize big dreams. The only trick – and I recognize that it is not and easy one – is to find something that has the requisite personal resonance for us to act on.
Ms. Choi summed up her experience last year for Milestones, the publication of the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging. “My mom lived eight years after her cancer surgery, when no one believed she’d live three months. My own personal home- care experience with mom helped my agency to grow. I understand the need for caregivers first-hand…I worked my way up to Vice President of a local finance company, but I knew that was not my final goal. I had an innate passion to do more for the community and for women’s and civic issues.”
For the Year of the Boomer – 2014 is the year the youngest Boomers turn 50 – Huffington Post’s “Post-50″ section is running my career reinvention series profiling 50 Boomers who have reinvented themselves within the last 10 years.