Bernie Wong: Dedicated to helping others
Surrounded by a multitude of awards, Bernie Wong, 72, sat in her office at the Chicago American Service League (CASL), the non-profit organization she founded with several like-minded friends 36 years ago. Today, the organization has grown to more than 500 full- and part-time employees serving some 17,000 members of Chicago’s Chinese community.
“My entire career has been in social work,” Wong said, sitting at her desk packed with papers and a computer. “From an early age, I always wanted to help others.”
The wall behind her is covered with power photos of her with prominent figures, including US President Barack Obama, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Secretary of State John Kerry.
Wong grew up in Hong Kong. Even though her family was poor, her mother was dedicated to helping people who were in desperate need or victims of the region’s frequent typhoons.
“I was very much influenced by my mother since I was a child,” Wong said.
She came to the US on a scholarship to study sociology at Briar Cliff University in Sioux City, Iowa, and went on to earn a graduate degree in social work at Washington University in St Louis.
She has devoted her life to serving people in the greater Chicago area ever since. She worked at the Illinois State Department of Children and Family Services for a couple of years, and then at the East Chicago Heights Community Center. She oversaw childcare and other services to the black community in East Chicago Heights (now Ford Heights), the poorest suburb in Cook County.
“The community had never seen an Asian woman before,” Wong said with a smile. “They tested me, sending young people to bring me food, such as animal intestine or a pig head with the snout on. I ate them all.”
“I gained their trust and began making home visits,” she said.
Wong worked for eight years in the community, expanding services from daycare to job training. She even opened a thrift shop to help clothe the poor with donated items.
“I got a taste of what real social work was all about,” Wong said. “It was an invaluable experience.”
Meanwhile, she also realized the need for social services in the Chicago Chinese community as she and several of her Chinese social worker friends frequently got calls from there for help.
Chinese American Service League was incorporated in 1979 and gradually the small group worked its way into being accepted by the Chinese community in Chicago.
Initially starting by helping Chinese seniors get their Social Security benefits and new immigrants learn English, CASL now operates five departments, providing daycare, job training, senior care, family counseling and housing and financial education services. CASL’s annual budget is $13 million.
“Many people don’t realize how much it takes to run a non-profit organization like ours,” she continued.
She reaches outside of the Chinese community to raise funds and as a result, support for CASL includes contributions from individuals, foundations and American corporations.
She still tries to keep up her tradition of having lunch with her staff and attending departmental meetings as often as she can. Her employees call her Bernie in English (or the endearing “Wong Tai” in Chinese).
“There is no hierarchy here,” she said. “I keep an open-door policy.”
“Bernie’s energy and dedication to CASL is inspiring,” said Wade Ekstrom, one of Wong’s assistants who speaks fluent Chinese.
“We have been in operation for 36 years now,” Wong said. “Some of the children who attended our daycare have grown up and become successful. Now I want to see them come back and make their contribution by helping others.”
CASL runs a senior-care facility that has 90 units and serves 130. She hopes to raise enough to buy an empty lot across from the facility and build another senior center.
“We have 300 people on the waiting list,” Wong said. She explained that the current senior facility cannot accommodate people who need special care.
“It’s sad to see that older couples have to be separated if one spouse gets sick or is injured. I’d like to build a facility that can provide various degrees of services, one on each floor, so the spouses can take an elevator to another level and spend time with their loved ones.”
Wong shows no signs of slowing down. Asked about retirement, she said: “Even if I retire, I’ll continue to come back and work.”
Bernie Wong’s office wall in Chicago contains photos of her with President Barack Obama and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.