Bernie Wong, Esther Wong benefitted Chinatown community through CASL
January 4, 2018

Alderman Daniel Solis (25th Ward) Bernie Wong, Esther Wong, and Josina Morita, Metropolitan Water District Commissioner, at an aldermanic event when the City Council passed resolutions honoring CASL leaders.

By Susan Fong

By responding to the needs of the Chicago’s Chinese American residents, the Chinese American Service League (CASL) gained a positive reputation for helping families within Chinatown and forming partnerships within the city and beyond.

Two longtime leaders of CASL, President Bernarda “Bernie” Wong and Executive Director Esther Wong, have retired after working nearly 40 years with the agency they created.

“Bernie had laid the groundwork, but it became too much, so I came on board,” said Esther Wong. “Bernie took on the external responsibilities, working with public relations, funding, etc., and I took on the internal responsibilities, i.e. the day-to-day operations—strengthening infrastructure, consolidating departments, and facilitating the move into our new building in 2004.”

CASL grew from having a $32,000 annual budget to one of $13.5 million and serving 17,000 people annually.

In 1979, Bernie and Esther noted the unmet social service needs of Chinatown and decided to approach United Charities, now Metropolitan Family Services (MFS), for help organizing CASL. Three of CASL’s ten co-founders had social service backgrounds, including C.W. Chan, Bernie Wong, and Esther Wong.

“We would’ve been glad to provide services,” said Jerry Erickson, former executive director of United Charities, “but we had no one with Chinese language skills.”

The co-founders obtained $30,000 from United Way and Chicago Community Trust, “so we discussed who would lead, and Bernie’s name came up as the candidate,” Erickson said.

“They strong-armed me into taking the position of executive director,” Bernie Wong said, laughing. “The others served on the board.”    

“I took Bernie under my wing, and she was a quick learner,” Erickson said. “She was formidable in her mission, assertive, and able to find the support and funding she needed.”

Rick Estrada, MFS executive director said he “met Bernie Wong when we received $250,000 from Bank of America’s New Leadership program, some of which went to Bernie for CASL and some for me to use for Erie House.

“Through the years, we’ve become a sounding board for each other,” Estrada said, “but when she would come and ask for advice I thought ‘Why are you coming to me? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?’

Asking for help

“What I learned from Bernie is you’re never too smart, never too big, and never too high to ask for help, perspective, or advice,” Estrada continued. “To ask for help is a strength, not a weakness. It’s now something I try to teach my staff. Then I turn and say to them, ‘So now it’s your turn to tell me how you do it.’”

Former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley remembers Bernie Wong and CASL well. Daley served as mayor from 1989 through 2011.

Daley said, “Our relationship was forged in our mutual love of Chicago. It was very real – education, public safety and improving general services were top priorities for us both. We believed that getting residents involved together would help solve many of the city’s problems.”

Daley further explained that when he had asked for the neighborhoods to assist in a community policing strategy – a hard sell to many at the time – Bernie Wong had risen to the occasion. But this was only one example. Daley noted that Bernie Wong was always on board for various City initiatives. Daley and Bernie Wong developed a strong bond and were mutually supportive of each other over many years. 

CASL has gone on to build on its early services by responding to the community’s changing needs as its members mature, providing help with employment, financial management, first home mortgages, and many other issues.

Esther Wong is remaining on staff until CASL hires a new executive director. “Our mission is to make system change through advocacy, but we can’t do it all,” she explained. “Now we partner with groups like Coalition for a Better Chinese American Chicago, founded by C.W. Chan; we don’t have to lead, but now we can be members and participants.”

Bernie Wong and Esther Wong with young dancers at CASL.

Esther Wong’s quiet role

“What few know about CASL is that Esther Wong has played a very major and consistent role in the agency’s history,” Chan said. “She is CASL’s silent partner. Our founding board had very active committees. Some members have since left, but Esther was ever present and active. Since CASL’s inception, she has worked tirelessly and quietly behind the scenes as the backbone of the organization’s programs and services.  Esther had served as chairwoman and member of the program committee before becoming executive director.”

Helping immigrants feel a sense of family has been essential to CASL’s essence. Tenny Yu, CASL nurse for adult day services, said she came through CASL’s summer youth program in her early teens as an immigrant and returned every year when she could.

“What I learned about jobs, communication, and social skills from Bernie and CASL staff members still helps me today,” Yu said. “Their services helped me to build the foundation for a career that would help people in need. That was the reason why I chose to become a nurse.”

Bernie Wong’s and Esther Wong’s skills and abilities have complemented each other over the years. Both have served on various boards and won many awards and accolades from Federal, State, and City governments as well from various organizations.

As the two ready themselves for their next careers, they can celebrate that the Chinese American community has been well served and their own lives have been well lived.

CASL is at 2141 S. Tan Ct. Call (312) 791-0418 or log on to www.caslservice.org.