Photo depicting Kelli Nomura wearing a black-white-and-tan-striped blouse.

Talking Community Health With New ICHS CEO Kelli Nomura

International Community Health Services celebrates 50th anniversary, and new leadership

by Amanda Ong

Last November, Kelli Nomura stepped into the role of CEO of International Community Health Services (ICHS) following Teresita Batayola’s appointment to President Biden’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiʻians, and Pacific Islanders, after 17 years in the position. Nomura comes into the position having worked with Batayola and ICHS staff as a member of the ICHS board, and already knowing the ins and outs of ICHS as well as the work it does, the challenges it faces, and the services it offers. Nomura’s appointment to the role comes as ICHS celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

“I’m just really honored to be in this position. And I look forward to leading the organization, you know, into their next 50 years,” Nomura said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald

Nomura grew up outside of Portland, Oregon. Her father was a physician, so she learned early on the importance of health care and preventative health, as well as the importance of access to health care. From a young age, she knew she wanted to work in the field of health. She received 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 graduating. 

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

Nomura moved up in the behavioral health organization into leadership management roles. After about 30 years being a direct service provider in the behavioral health system, she became the director of the Behavioral Health and Recovery Division at King County, overseeing all the behavioral health services for low-income, Medicaid, and uninsured individuals across King County. She joined the ICHS board because she wanted to gain awareness of other areas of the medical health system for Seattle communities, particularly the AAPI community.

“I have been connected to or interested in the integration of behavioral health with medical care, because I believe that it’s so important to treat the whole person and not separate treatment of the head from the body,” Nomura said. “[ICHS is] committed to providing those services in a culturally and linguistically appropriate way. We serve everyone, that’s really where our mission is. [We make] sure that community members, 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, its history is present 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 though ICHS is rooted in the Asian American community, its history in the CID is all the more reason for why it serves everyone, an understanding that is fundamental to Nomura’s approach as CEO. 

“We need to be aware of what the need is of the communities that we may not be in, now that many of our patients are traveling to our clinics from various parts of King County and beyond,” Nomura said. “How do we provide access to them more easily? And so where are we going to grow? Who are we going to partner with, and perhaps make our services more accessible [to] in additional locations?”

At the moment, 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 would also create openings and availability in the existing clinics.

Clinic and partnership expansion aren’t the only ways Nomura is excited to help ICHS grow. Currently, she is excited for the expansion of the Healthy Aging & Wellness program for seniors and elders, 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 elders, growing its Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE), and hopefully increasing its current capacity for serving 100 elders to­­­ serving closer to 400. 

Nomura approaches her work with a keen sense of ICHS’s mission, its impact, and its meaning to a community that has relied on it for health services 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’ve come from,” Nomura said. “Health isn’t just limited to receiving medical, dental, or behavioral health. There [are] so many things that allow [us] to stay healthy. [That] includes access to stable housing, income and employment, food and connection to community, just making sure that we’re supporting all of the different social determinants of health that keep our communities whole.”

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 at 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 having served 12 years on the ICHS board. (Photo courtesy of International Community Health Services.)

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