Bernie Wong: Ded­i­cated to help­ing oth­ers

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSS AMERICAS - By JIAN PING in Chicago For China Daily

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.”

JIAN PING / FOR CHINA DAILY

Bernie Wong’s of­fice wall in Chicago con­tains pho­tos of her with Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

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