“Don’t only give your care, but give your heart as well” a quote by Mother Teresa which became my late mother’s mantra in life. I was the youngest of seven children and grew up poor but never realized it. I am, what you would refer to as a product of a Catholic School upbringing, I learned early on life the meaning of generosity and compassion for others. My mother was always available and willing to help others in need and would take me and my siblings to visit the sick every week and share our food with others. These experiences in my early years set the stage for my mission driven approach to serving others with dignity and respect. At age 18, I left Hong Kong alone for Sioux City, Iowa, where I earned a four year scholarship to pursue a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology from Briar Cliff College. I went on to earn a Master’s Degree in Social Work from Washington University in St. Louis.
Through my own experience as an Asian living in a western world, I came to truly understand what poor new immigrants face when confronted by a completely different culture and language. This realization gave me the courage to gather a few friends and begin the difficult task of building the Chinese American Service League (CASL) with a desk and a chair.
Today, after 33 years, CASL has grown from a one-person shop in 1979 to become the largest, most comprehensive social service agency in the Midwest dedicated to serving the needs of Chinese Americans. At CASL, we welcome all who walk through our doors, providing child services, elder services, employment training services, family counseling, and housing and financial education to over 17,000 clients of all ages and backgrounds each year.
I’d like to say we have the best staff working at CASL. Why? Because I see how they devote themselves to serve the newly arrived Chinese immigrants in our great city of Chicago. A majority of our staff are themselves immigrants from Asia, which enhances their ability to empathize with their clients’ experiences of what it means to find an identity in a land they now call “home.” It warms my heart everyday as I walk through the doors of CASL and encountering a frail senior coming to our Adult Day service, or a tiny tot being chaperoned to our Day Care -- I make it my personal mission to stop in my tracks for every one of these precious people. My soul shall not be impoverished by missing out on the richness of what servitude can bring.
A nurturing hub within the heart of Chinatown, the Chinese American Service League (CASL) connects families and individuals of all ages with the vital support they need to flourish physically, economically, mentally and socially, enabling them to thrive and contribute to the greater Chicago community.
Being selected to receive the “Champion of Change” award at the White House is a stark reminder of the words my mother had lived by and shown me through her exemplary lifestyle: “don’t only give your care, but give your heart as well.” As an awardee today, I am truly honored and humbled.
Bernarda Wong is a founder and the President of the Chinese American Service League (CASL).