Our Founder, Nahla Kayali

How AccessCal’s founder and executive director went from helping herself to helping thousands of vulnerable community members.

It all began with a dream of coming to Los Angeles. I grew up in Syria living as a Palestinian refugee and I always fantasized about moving to the United States after watching episodes of “The Mod Squad.” The thrill, the excitement, the glamor – I wanted all of it!

My dream came to life when I received a marriage proposal at the age of 16. It was the ticket I needed to move to the United States so naturally I eagerly accepted. Without finishing high school and leaving school at 9th grade, I packed my bags, excited to begin a new life in my dream country.

Years down the line, unfortunately my marriage came to an end and I found myself a single mom to three children, living as an immigrant in a foreign country. It was overwhelming. I felt like I needed to speak to someone about the challenges and hardship I was enduring. Divorce continued to have a great deal of stigma in the community and I had no one to speak to. I sought comfort at a local mosque but I felt like I was not receiving the mental health support I needed. I decided to visit a mainstream therapist but she did not understand my culture or my background and I just could not connect. Receiving counseling became so hard and I gave up. I thought of my fellow community members within the Arab and Muslim populations who were also struggling. What if they too, were missing out on vital services, because of language and cultural barriers?

Limited access to services caused a great deal of stress in my life. As I was still navigating the system to find myself help, I also needed to make sure my children were insured with health coverage. As a result of my divorce, I lost my family’s health insurance and I needed to take my daughter to an urgent care. While I was there, I came across a pamphlet for the Healthy Families program. I had no idea this was even an option for my children. This was my second sign that I needed to do something for my community. I needed to make sure my community members also had access to resources, information, and services.

It was during these dark moments that I promised myself to find a solution. I had a vision of establishing an organization that would serve my community with needed services, but in a culturally and linguistically sensitive manner.

It was quite the journey of discovery as I worked to bring this vision to life. How do I start? Where do I start? I had so many questions but I was determined. I decided to start by visiting the public library where I checked out the book “How to Start a Non-Profit in California,” – this book was my vehicle to begin the process. It took countless nights of studying and as I learned, I started networking with different non-profit organizations to understand more about how they brought services to their communities. I started learning the non-profit language by sitting with different Executive Directors, Program and Fund Development Directors, and case workers to understand the system. My networking led me to one transformative meeting at the Community Development Council (CDC) which is now Community Action Partnership of Orange County (CAPOC). During this meeting, I was able to share the needs of the Arab and Muslim communities and how they are underserved and need culturally sensitive services. My feedback resonated with the CDC team who suggested I come back to them after I establish my non-profit.

In 1998, I was thrilled to have finally launched the non-profit organization I had envisioned. Initially, the first name of the organization was CareRUs which later down the road became Access California Services. As soon as I received the 501 (c)(3) status, I remembered to visit my friends at CDC. I went to them and reminded how my community was underserved, and their team believed in my vision, and granted me my first $2,000 grant, which served as seed money to begin serving my community.

It was a humble amount, but it came with a great deal of hope, motivation, and a vision to serve. I started serving the community with a borrowed telephone and folding table from home, and milk crate to begin storing paperwork. I worked out of a very small one-room office in the heart of the community where I began to build a name for this organization. I knew that to bring resources for my community, I had to be present at different tables. This is why I became an advocate in the sphere of mental health, immigration, health access, workforce, the Census, transportation, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, family reunification, homelessness, food security, older adults, refugee resettlement, and much more. I became active on diverse advisory boards and boards of directors at Federal, State, County and City levels for the purpose of making our community voice heard.

Through the work of board members, staff, volunteers and interns, partnerships, needs assessments, research, and grants, the story of AccessCal began to unfold and we have been able to witness a journey from a folding table and chair to a dream come true community center for our community.

Nahla Kayali’s Story and Work Shared in Textbooks

Nahla’s story is featured in the book titled “Leadership with Impact: Preparing Health and Human Service Practitioners in the Age of Innovation and Diversity,” authored by Juan Carlos Araque and Eugenia L. Weiss, professors at the University of Southern California (USC). This book is currently being referred to by USC’s Master of Social Work Program. Thousands of copies have been sold worldwide, and the book is presently being translated into multiple languages.

Link to Textbook:

Leadership with Impact: Preparing Health and Human Service Practitioners in the Age of Innovation and Diversity

Nahla Kayali’s Current and Previous Appointments

  • • Refugee Forum of Orange County, Chairwoman
  • • State Advisory Council on Refugee Assistance and Services (SAC), Refugee Forum Seat
  • • California Department of Public Health – Office of Health Equity (OHE) Advisory Committee
  • • Mental Health Services Accountability & Oversight Committee – Cultural & Linguistic Competency Advisory Committee
  • • Community Action Partnership of Orange County (CAPOC)
  • • The Orange County Food Bank
  • • Chief’s Advisory Board (CAB) Anaheim Police Department
  • • Mental Health Services Act Steering Committee (MHSA)
  • • Arab American Institute (AAI)
  • • National Network for Arab American Communities (NNAAC) Advisory Council
  • • Covered Orange County Steering Committee (Affordable Care Act/Obamacare)
  • • University of California Irvine – Department of Clinical and Translational Science – Community Action Planning Group
  • • Citizens Advisory Committee for the Orange County Transportation Authority
  • • The Public Health Board at the Department of Health Sciences at California State University, Fullerton
  • • Southern California Edison Advisory Committee
  • • Community Health Council for Covering Kids and Families Statewide
  • • Orange County Certified Applicant Assistant Taskforce
  • • Orange County Human Trafficking Taskforce
  • • Orange County Financial Stability Committee, United Way
  • • United States Census Bureau – California Complete Count Committee 2010 & Orange County for 2020
  • • United Way Health Council of Orange County
  • • Health Consumer Action Center of Legal Aid Society of Orange County

Nahla Kayali’s Recognitions

  • • The White House
  • • US. House of Representatives
  • • US. Department of Commerce
  • • State of California Senate
  • • Office of Senator Josh Newman – Woman of the Year Award
  • • California State Assembly
  • • Orange County Board of Supervisors
  • • City of Anaheim
  • • United Nations Association – Global Citizen Award
  • • Orange County Human Relations
  • • Blue Cross of California
  • • YWCA of North Orange County – Business Woman of the Year Award
  • • Southern California Edison
  • • Islamic Relief USA – Custodianship Award
  • • Women Who Make a Difference in Orange County
  • • One World Human Creativity
  • • National Philanthropy
  • • University of California, Irvine – Chancellor’s Award
  • • Orange County Business Journal
  • • United States Census
  • • Community Action Partnership of Orange County
  • • Pacific Clinics

Links to Nahla Kayali’s Press Coverage  

These are just a few links to press coverage that has featured Nahla Kayali.

OC Register


Montecito Journal

ShelterBox to Host Inspiring Panel for International Women’s Day

Obama White House Archives


OC Register

Anaheim’s Nahla Kayali makes White House connection

ABC7 News


OC Register


OC Weekly


OC Register


OC Register


OC Register