The origins of Asian American Community Services (AACS) can be traced to the Friday evening meetings of the Columbus Chinese Christian Fellowship (CCCF) at the University Baptist Church. Although it was primarily a Bible study group, this small gathering of individuals began to discuss ways that they can promote awareness of East Asian cultures and language needs in the Central Ohio community and in Columbus Public Schools. The group was led by Dr. Shuh-Chai Lee and two other Chinese OSU graduate students. As a non-citizen employee at the Ohio Department of Transportation, Dr. Lee had experienced life both before and after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Dr. Lee and the others used their ecumenical, cosmopolitan, and humanistic values to address a rising need for cultural sensitivity and integration in American society.
In March of 1972, W. C. Chow, a Chinese minister from Cincinnati, came to Columbus to facilitate the funeral of a young restaurant worker. With the help of the CCCF, he offered further assistance to the family to help them deal with the unexpected tragedy. The family was grateful for the minister's assistance and joined the CCCF Bible studies. Reverend Chow expanded the CCCF to include Sunday worship services at the Wesley Foundation near the OSU campus. The gatherings were still primarily considered a Bible study group, but the group was rapidly expanding, and it was around this time that the members started to think of ways to help the Asian community in Central Ohio.
What spurred Dr. Lee into action was the case of Mr. Wong, the 90 year-old father of a close friend. Mr. Wong was a WWI veteran who first came to the U.S. in 1916. He had been receiving a pension for 25 years but had no idea that he was also eligible for veterans and welfare benefits or how to apply for these benefits. After Mr. Wong was evicted from his apartment for nonpayment of rent, he moved into his son’s garage that had been converted to a living quarter and died a few years later. Moved by this injustice, Dr. Lee helped Mr. Wong’s son build and operate a small restaurant in a predominately African-American neighborhood.The restaurant supported five immigrant families for the next three generations. After learning about the assistance Dr. Lee provided to Mr. Wong's family, Chinese students, recent immigrants, aging immigrants, and their children all began to come to the CCCF not only for Bible studies but to seek social services and other assistance as well.
Dr. Lee's early efforts included assistance to older members of the Asian community and linguistic and cultural education in local schools. For example, Dr. Lee worked with a senior lunch program called NICE (now LifeCare Alliance) to provide services to Asian seniors. In addition, Dr. Lee wanted to raise cultural and linguistic awareness among the younger generation. Dr. Lee, his wife Catherine S., and two other volunteers organized a Chinese language class for elementary school children. He and Catherine also accepted multiple invitations from Columbus Public Schools to speak about various topics related to East Asia including languages, history, geography, and culture. Furthermore, Dr. Lee worked with the Columbus Adult Readers Association to hold screenings of cultural and educational films followed by discussion groups.
In 1976, almost four years after he started providing social services and other assistance to the local Asian community, Dr. Lee founded Asian American Community Services (AACS) as a mechanism to help serve not only the Chinese population but all Asian populations in Central Ohio. The founding members of the Board of Trustees included the Reverend and Dr. Pogue as President, Mrs. Kawakami as Treasurer, and Dr. Lee as Executive Secretary and Executive Vice-President. That same year, the President of the United States and Congress declared the second week in May to be Asian celebration week. Two years later, AACS reached out to other Asian-American groups in Ohio and organized a celebration of Asian Week at the YMCA.
Despite many setbacks (including a significant lack of grant funding) in the years following its establishment, AACS has managed to serve hundreds of clients and offer a wide range of programs to the public in the decades since its founding. What began as a small, volunteer faith-based group has now become a thriving nonprofit organization. AACS remains the only nonprofit in Central Ohio which serves all AAPI persons regardless of age, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background.