A visionary leader who helped transform the lives of countless Chinese immigrants in Chicago by connecting them to supportive services is being remembered this week. Bernarda Wong, known by many as “Bernie,” passed away early Tuesday morning from cancer of the stomach and pelvis. She was 77 years old.
Wong, an immigrant from Hong Kong and trained social worker, co-founded and led the Chinese American Service League (CASL). It is a common entry point for immigrants seeking assistance with housing, vocational and language training, child care, senior services care, and much more. Established more than 40 years ago, the agency has come to be a pillar in the Chinatown community.
C.W. Chan said the idea for CASL arose from mealtime gatherings in Chinatown restaurants that he, Wong and some other friends held half a century ago. At the time, Wong was working with mostly African-American clients at a social service agency in what is now south suburban Ford Heights. But the group felt there was an unmet need for similar services among Chinese immigrants. They began doing volunteer work in the community.
“I remember distinctly, each one of us chipped in $5 and we bought some stationary and went down to Chinatown to help the senior citizens to apply for the Circuit Breakers rebate,” said Chan, referring to an Illinois tax rebate program to help seniors. “When we tried to do the program, actually we were faced with some suspicion.”
Nonetheless, the work acquainted them with further needs in the community. Several of them, with their social work backgrounds, felt that the community was not tapping into public assistance resources that were available. They set up shop in a back room of a dental office in Chinatown, with Wong as the sole staff member.
“What we thought at the time was, just like the Circuit Breakers program, there were resources out there that were available,” said Chan. “We started with the simple idea of providing information and referrals, and then that evolved into a comprehensive service organization for the whole community that expanded to a lot of other programs.”
Today, CASL is a multimillion dollar anchor organization that operates out of a building designed by famed architect Jeanne Gang, and helps thousands of immigrants each year.
“The growth of the organization, a lot of it is because of Bernie,” said Illinois State Representative Theresa Mah (D-Chicago). Mah, who was previously a community organizer and policy advocate in Chinatown, worked at a desk just 50 feet from Wong. Mah came to regard Wong as a mentor, friend and key political supporter when she later ran for office.
“She’s diminutive in stature, yet extremely powerful,” Mah said, noting Wong’s height of barely 5 feet. “She knows all the public officials that could potentially help and she engages everybody.”
Mah said Wong was doggedly persistent about her vision of lifting up the Chinese-American community, and shrewd when it came to enlisting political support. It earned Wong a “Champion of Change” award from the Obama administration in 2012.
Wong retired from her role at CASL at the end of 2016 but continued to serve on multiple boards and Chinatown community initiatives.
“Mom felt retirement wasn’t really a retirement. She just went from being paid to not being paid,” said Jacinta Wong, Bernie Wong’s only child.
Nonetheless, Jacinta Wong said her mother did take up yoga and swimming regularly. In 2018, she said her parents embarked on a long cruise to Shanghai, Singapore, New Zealand and Australia. It was during that trip that she said her mother began complaining that she felt short of breath. Upon returning to the U.S., doctors diagnosed her with stage 4 cancer. Two weeks after operating on her, Wong’s husband, Albert, passed suddenly from a heart attack.
Jacinta Wong said she has been deeply touched by the messages of condolences she’s received since news of her mother’s death went out.
“I’ve gotten calls from New Zealand, I’ve gotten calls from China, I’ve gotten calls from Singapore, and all of her board members from around the country, from all the boards she’s been on,” said Jacinta Wong. She said their stories of knowing and being helped by her mother are a ray of light in a time of grief.
“It wasn’t work to her,” said Jacinta Wong. “It was just doing what she loved, and helping people.”
Odette Yousef is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @oyousef.