Partner Profile: A Conversation with Sarun S. Chan

May 13, 2024

The Health Care Improvement Foundation’s (HCIF) Partner Profiles highlight the efforts of valued and innovative health leaders. Our partners’ work supports HCIF’s vision of healthier communities through equitable, accessible, and quality health care.

For years, Pennsylvania Health Literacy Coalition (PAHLC) has prioritized the needs of its regional and statewide community partners through the Immigrant Health Literacy Initiative (IHLI), a component of HCIF’s health literacy program funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Health. An effective approach to addressing health literacy includes community-based interventions delivered by trusted partners — such as Sarun S. Chan.

Sarun has worked with PAHLC since 2018 as a Health Literacy Project Partner to support our IHLI activities. He is the Executive Director at the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia (CAGP), and a dedicated community champion of health literacy.

In honor of Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month in May, we asked Sarun to reflect on his career journey, accomplishments, and relationship with HCIF.

You have been a longtime advocate and leader for immigrant and refugee communities. What inspires you in this work?

The foundation of my commitment in this work stems from my own former refugee upbringing in my household and within the Cambodian communities of South and North Philadelphia. Since I was 8 years old, I needed to help support my parents with being their translator in various spaces including for medical coverage, public benefits, during report card conferences in school, and more. As a child, I felt ashamed that my parents could not navigate these spaces alone until I realized that I was not the only one experiencing this. My fellow Southeast Asian classmates and friends were also translating and filling out paperwork for their parents as well. From this journey of being an 8-year-old “case manager” for my family through adulthood became a core inspiration for me to amplify the visibility and voice of under-served and under-represented communities while bridging resources. No child, no matter what background, should have the adult responsibility to navigate systems for their parent because the agency or entity is not providing inclusive and equitable services.

Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia (CAGP) has prioritized health literacy through its partnership with Immigrant Health Literacy Initiative since 2018. What is one of the most impactful changes that CAGP has achieved in this space?

One of the most impactful changes we have achieved has been expanding our health navigation work to incorporate and champion digital literacy. Prior to the pandemic, CAGP began advocating for better access and support surrounding non-English speaking patients during doctor visits. We were happy to incorporate digital literacy and advocacy along with health literacy as a strong component in our work.

What is one key thing you would like the public, or someone not in health care, to understand about health literacy?

Health literacy is more than translating documents. Yes, having translated materials is great with outreach but also understanding that some former refugee and immigrant communities are not able to read or write in their own languages. For example, many Cambodian community members have low literacy in our own Khmer language. Because of poverty and war, many of the older adults and adults in our community never finished schooling or were unable to attend. As documents are being translated in Khmer or other languages, please be mindful that words and terminologies are simplified. We have come across hundreds of translated materials and our community was unable to understand. Hiring staff with language and cultural expertise is vital to providing health services to many communities including Cambodian.

If you could motivate people to tackle one issue or address one challenge in health care, what would it be?

Data is vital to providing targeted and focused services. Data is vital to allocating funding where it can be best utilized. I would push for leadership across the city and agencies to collect disaggregated data by ethnicity and implement it in their work. The Asian community is not a monolith but a community of contrast with various languages, disparities, and needs. Instead of simply having “Asian” as a check box, by breaking it down to Cambodian, Lao, Viet, Hmong, etc. we will learn and see the unique and varying needs of each community. The model minority myth and other misleading data hurts the AAPI community. There is data that says Asians are doing well but when you break it down, you will find that many Southeast Asian communities are nearing the bottom of many statistics surrounding higher education attainment, income, and employment and more.

What have you found most meaningful about working with HCIF? What’s something you’ve learned from our partnership?

One of the most meaningful work that we were able to accomplish together were bringing together CBOs and Hospital leadership. We were able to sit together (more than once) and share various needs, concerns, and accomplishments in terms of providing more inclusive services to our under-served and under-represented communities. During this time, we also gained insight into how certain healthcare providers operate and manage their teams.

Reflecting on your long career, what is one of your greatest accomplishments within your work so far?

In the present, I am extremely proud of my work with the Vendors Association and FDR Park in support of the establishment of the Southeast Asian Market in FDR Park. The work is hard and it has not always been smooth. I am proud that I continue to stand strong and committed to the community by empowering them to take ownership of this formerly hidden and historic market. The development of what I call “the pathway towards formalization” instead of labeling my community as illegal was a small win for me. With the support of an amazing team and partnership, we are now in a place where vendors are attending training and workshops that will improve themselves and our community at large.

The development of what I call “the pathway towards formalization” instead of labeling my community as illegal was a small win for me.

What’s something most people don’t know about you?

I am a former paranormal investigator before it became mainstream in TV shows and YouTube channels. I was part of a paranormal group that I left as they became an actual TV show.

What’s your favorite place you’ve ever visited?

One of my favorite places was a seaside town in the Sihanouk, Cambodia. Delicious seafood, beautiful weather which includes sun and storm, and relaxing atmosphere.


Sarun’s engagement and leadership for health literacy and willingness to share insights about AAPI community has made a meaningful difference in PAHLC’s Immigrant Health Literacy Initiative. In the current environment of high needs and competing priorities, we congratulate Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia (CAGP) for their sustained contributions to enhancing health literacy in Philadelphia.

We are honored to have worked with CAGP and look forward to seeking new opportunities for collaboration in the future.

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