FEATURES • Spring 2003

 

 

From a tiny office 25 years ago, alumna Bernie Wong has developed the Chinese American Service League of Chicago into the largest bilingual social service agency in the Midwest.

By Judy H. Watts

Never tell Bernie Wong something can't be done. You'll be resoundingly mistaken. If human need exists and this soft-spoken social worker is determined to help, she will let nothing deter her from not only improving a situation but transforming it.

President of the Chinese American Service League (CASL), Wong has led the organization for 24 years in Chicago's Chinatown, a vivid 10-block area south of the downtown Loop where pagoda roofs notch the sky and red and green paint summon good luck and prosperity. But as the Midwest's largest bilingual social service agency serving primarily Chinese individuals, CASL now provides mostly free services to fully 14,000 clients a year—many of them in multiple programs—who live in Chinatown, throughout the metropolitan area, and beyond. The agency has a budget of $5.8 million, a bilingual staff of 190, and many dozens of programs in four departments—family and community, child education and development, employment and training, and elderly services.

"We serve anybody, of any race, who comes through the door," says Wong. If a person speaks neither English nor Chinese, the staff calls an organization where the appropriate language is used. Recent immigrants from China are one of the agency's most urgent concerns: They usually speak limited English and tend to be low income. "But CASL sees the people out of that level, and we watch them move up."

When someone seeking employment or other assistance first walks into CASL, the family-oriented staff tries to determine whether the client has additional needs. Whatever the requirements—counseling for depression, day care for young children, or academic assistance for teenagers—social workers can introduce the client to someone at CASL who will help. The agency's programs even include community initiatives and coordinating neighborhood development for the larger Chinese community. Such remarkably complete services at CASL represent Wong's automatic responses to necessity. When she founded CASL in 1978, professional programs for Chinese Americans were sparse. Since then, Wong has listened closely to people in need—and she keeps saying yes.

The Chinese American Service League sprang up in the late '70s, when a group of 10 friends that included Bernie Wong, supported by her husband, Albert, spent Sundays in a tiny community room helping Chinatown's seniors obtain Social Security information for tax rebates. Within weeks, checks began arriving in the mail.

But when the extent of the community's needs became clear, Wong sought help. Using the outreach ability that is one of her strengths, she made presentations to the United Charities of Chicago (now Metropolitan Family Services) requesting assistance. The result: For CASL's critical first year, the agency donated office space, a shared secretary, basic equipment, and all supplies. ("My hope is that all large agencies will help the fledglings, especially ethnic organizations that have an abundance of vision but few resources," Wong says.)

 

The Vernon Sandacz Children and Youth Center (top) and the Adult Day Service Center (right) are two of the Chinese American Service League's five facilities, which serve 14,000 clients annually.

 

Because her friends had full-time commitments, Wong single-handedly set up her tiny apartment-sized office and recruited a skeleton staff. Almost immediately, she realized there wasn't enough space. When Chicago anchorwoman Linda Yu stopped by to visit, for example, she could hardly get up the stairs because people were standing on every step, waiting to get in. (Today, Yu chairs CASL's advisory board.)

A month or two later, Wong heard about the benefits of being a United Way agency. Knowledgeable sources informed her, however, that she shouldn't even think about applying for membership until CASL had developed a five-year track record. "I said I couldn't wait that long!" Wong says. "So I went to United Way and asked to see the person in charge of membership applications. We were still working on our systems and manuals, but our social service points helped us get in." Wong later became United Way of Chicago's first Asian-American board member.

Six years ago, on the eve of a $9.15 million capital campaign, Wong turned to HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development), again in response to her clients' needs. "When seniors told us they had no housing, we listened." Wong presented the idea to CASL's board members ("who all said 'fine'") and prepared to apply for funds for a new building. "But I said, 'I can't do all this and start a capital campaign at the same time!' Everybody told me, 'Don't worry, it always takes three tries with HUD.' But we got the funding on our first try!"

Now CASL has a "wonderful building" for seniors, with seven floors; 91 units; a full-time, on-site social worker; a thoughtful set of services; and more than 130 "very contented seniors." At last count, 466 names are on the waiting list.

(Wong did simultaneously launch CASL's multi-million-dollar campaign, which has been very successful. Although $360,000 still must be raised, CASL will move in spring 2004 to a three-story, 36,000-square-foot facility, where all social services will be available under one roof.)

"I always like to have prospective sponsors and donors visit CASL to watch the programs in action. When they see how the people are being helped, I don't have to say a word," says Bernie Wong.

How ever does Bernie Wong do it? Her mother's mentoring example "as a social worker of her time" has counted for a lot, Wong says. Born in Hong Kong at the end of World War II, Wong went with her mother on weekends to the crowded public hospital, where "my mom walked up to absolute strangers lying in hallways, and cleaned their mucus and cared for them." Wong has inherited an equally compelling drive to serve others.

Earning her M.S.W. at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work (GWB) in 1968 was very important, as well, says Wong. GWB provided the young scholarship student with the wide-ranging professional training she needed—and a warm environment in which classmates of different ages and races made a habit of helping one another.

Connections, says Wong, are critical. Over the years, which have brought her bouquets of honors and awards, she has made a point of meeting leaders throughout the city and state, and she has served on more than three dozen prestigious councils, associations, and committees at all levels. Of these, 12 were presidencies or chairships; six were board memberships.

Above all, Wong's indomitable spirit pushes the remarkable to happen. In a scenario repeated in kind throughout CASL's history, Wong decided one day that since written requests for a larger library in Chinatown had been futile, she would simply pay a call on the late Harold Washington, then mayor of Chicago, to ask him for a library that CASL and the Chinatown community could use. She was quickly appointed by the late mayor as the first Asian to the Public Library Board. (A spacious new library followed.)

"To convince people to pitch in, you have to do your job very well and have excellent services," Wong says. "But I always like to have prospective sponsors and donors visit CASL to watch the programs in action. When they see how the people are being helped, I don't have to say a word."

Judy H. Watts is a free-lance writer based in Santa Barbara, California, and a former editor of this magazine.