Meet Philip Lai: A pillar of the Asian community
By Mary Anna Rodabaugh
With a background in academia and a master’s degree in electrical engineering, Philip Lai, 71, of South Philadelphia, never imagined he would serve as director of a Philadelphia Senior Center (PSC) for more than 20 years. Today, Lai is the branch director of PSC’s Asian Pacific Resource Center, located within PSC on the Avenue of the Arts at 509 S. Broad Street.
“Before I got this position, there were a large number of Chinese immigrants moving (to Philadelphia),” Lai said. “I started working with older Asian immigrants and that (trend) never changed.”
From the start, Lai demonstrated a special gift: connecting with older adult immigrants. He also possesses a strong commitment to serving his community and making a difference in others’ lives.
Leaders within the PSC organization recognized Lai’s talents and recommended him for the branch director position. Once settled into his new role, Lai took hold of the leadership helm with passion and a willingness to learn.
At the time, Lai lived in Northeast Philadelphia and made the long weekday commute to the former Coffee Cup Branch, then located on S. 10th St. in Center City. After he stopped driving, Lai needed to take multiple buses and the subway just to get to work. Then, he moved to South Philadelphia, making his commute much shorter.
“In all these years, the most important thing is helping older adults,” he said. “Since many immigrants do not know how to navigate the (health care and social) systems, they do not know if they are entitled to help or benefits. So, they come to me and ask for advice.”
The phrase “trial by fire” appropriately describes Lai’s career trajectory. He has spent the past two decades learning from other organizations. By working alongside SeniorLAW Center and Community Legal Services, Lai has taught himself the ins and outs of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and additional benefits older adult immigrants may need.
“When I work with clients, they advise me how different things work,” Lai said. “That’s how I learn. The main thing is helping older adults navigate a system that seems foreign to them.”
He also spends time each day helping his team organize workshops and activities. The Asian Pacific Resource Center offers a variety of recreational and educational opportunities for older adults, including tai chi, innovative art classes, chair yoga and lunchtime workshops. On Thursdays, members can enjoy free to-go lunches with a suggested contribution of $1.25. The center also partners with Temple Health, Jefferson Health and University of Pennsylvania Health System to offer virtual and in-person workshops on health and wellness topics impacting older adults.
Decades of change
“Over the past 20 years, I have seen a lot of changes,” Lai said. “The older adults have been going through a lot and many are now attending adult day care instead of going to a senior center.”
Lai makes a point to visit older adults who attend adult day care but still want to participate in the senior center’s activities, either virtually or in person.
Many Asian older adults believe “if you have a minor problem, you don’t raise your voice and you don’t complain,” said Lai, who spends each day encouraging older adults to speak up about any problems they may be facing. “Whether older adults need help paying bills or don’t feel safe in their neighborhood, they should never have to deal with any problem on their own. I tell them, ‘we’re here (to help)’. We may not be able to come up with a 100% solution that can resolve all your problems, but at leas we are here to listen and help. There is no need to suffer in silence.”
Nearly 2,000 older adults have been assisted by the center since Lai became director two decades ago. That number will only continue to grow for years to come as he continues to contribute his
gifts to the Asian older adult community.
Resources for Asian older adults
Philadelphia Senior Center on the Avenue of the Arts & Asian Pacific Resource Center is located at 509 S. Broad St. in Center City. For information about programs and services, call 215-546-5879.
Penn Asian Senior Services (PASSi), located at 6926 Old York Rd., is the largest provider of linguistically and culturally attuned services for Asian older adults in Philadelphia and Southeastern Pennsylvania. Services include Evergreen Senior Community Center, homecare, adult day care, vocational and job training, PACE pharmaceutical benefits assistance, and meal delivery. For more information, call 215-572-1234 or visit https://passi.us.
The Asian American Outreach Program, also referred to as the “Lotus Program,” serves Asian older adults who speak Cantonese, Khmer and Mandarin with to-go lunch, education, recreat ion, exercise and socialization. The Lotus Program is held Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. as a service of the Marconi Older Adult Program, which is housed at the South Philadelphia Boys & Girls Club. For more information, call 215-717-1968 or visit CaringPeopleAlliance.org.
Asian Americans United has worked in Philadelphia’s Asian communities for more than three decades to support quality education, youth leadership opportunities, immigrant rights, neighborhood development, folk arts and cultural activities, and to end anti-Asian violence. For more information, call 215-925-1538 or visit https://aaunited.org.
Mary Anna Rodabaugh is a writer, editor and writing coach.