CHICAGO (CBS) — They are two of the most respected voices in Chicago’s Chinese American Community.
Nearly 40 years ago, they saw a need and took action. They founded a social service agency, that has become the largest in the Midwest dedicated to serving Chinese Americans.
In 1978, two women came together and changed the landscape of Chinatown and helped thousands of Chinese Americans. CBS 2’s Susanna Song spoke to the women behind this success.
“There was 10 of us, group of friend, every Sunday,” said Bernie Wong, Co-Founder Chinese American Service League (CASL). “We’d meet, convince the local community center to go in and help out, help people apply for social security.”
One of those friends, Esther Wong still serves alongside her at the Chinese American Service League.
“At the beginning, residents were isolated because of language and culture,” said Ester Wong, Co-Founder, CASL. “There was no such service in the community.”
Their initial $32,000 grant has grown to an annual $13-million budget.
“It’s a little bit bigger,” Wong laughed. “That is because of our wonderful supporters.”
The agency provides housing, job training, cooking classes and a daycare to both children and the elderly.
“Many of our clients who were in our childcare are now doctors, lawyers, good parents,” Wong said. “We changed their lives, changed the scene of this community.”
CASL has been instrumental in the boom and growth of Chicago’s Chinatown, helping bring in small businesses, restaurants, parks and even a brand new library.
“Chicago’s Chinatown is the only Chinatown growing,” Wong said. “It’s amazing. We always make sure we keep pulse in planning of Chinatown. I came in 1968. It was just two streets, Cermak and Wentworth and now it is prospering.”
Today, one will find a lot more streets that make up Chinatown, including an honorary street for Bernie Wong.
“I’ve heard people say they cannot say no to Bernie, social worker by background, staunch Catholic,” Wong said “So I believe, it is important to help those who are in need.”
Bernie Wong’s determination and compassion is what helped Chicago’s Chinatown flourish.
“A lot of sweat and tears, but has been a good mission and career,” Wong said.
Bernie Wong and Esther Wong are retiring at the end of the year. The two are not related, they just happen to share the same last name.
CASL’s annual winter fundraiser will be held in their honor.