Founder of Chicago’s Chinese American Service League Passes Away From Cancer at 77

Bernarda “Bernie” Wong, the 77-year-old founder of Chicago’s Chinese American Service League, passed away early Tuesday after a bout with cancer.

Wong’s daughter, Jacinta Wong, said her mother passed away from stomach cancer surrounded by close friends and family, reported the Chicago Sun-Times. However, NBC and ABC7 Chicago reported Wong died after a battle with breast cancer.

“We’ve really lost an advocate and trailblazer, someone who truly is an inspiration and role model for us all,” Paul Luu, CEO of the CASL, told the Chicago Tribune.

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In a letter sent to the CASL community on Tuesday, Luu and Board of Directors Chair James Mark Jr. said Wong “dedicated her entire life to supporting Chinese Americans and many other immigrant communities.”

Her goal was to create a “comprehensive suite of services to help Chinese Americans adapt and thrive in Chicago,” the letter continued.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Wong immigrated to the U.S. at 18. She first attended Briar Cliff University in Iowa and later received her master’s degree in social work from Washington University in St. Louis.

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She worked as a social worker in Chicago and later founded the CASL in 1978 with her husband, Albert, and other members from the community.

The organization would have potluck dinners centered around talks about what the Chicago Chinese community needed, Wong told the Chicago Tribune in 2013.

CASL provides social services and other programs to help immigrants.

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“For over 40 years, the Chinese American Service League’s (CASL) comprehensive programs have connected families and individuals in the Chicago Chinese community and beyond with the vital support they need: providing an educational and cultural foundation for our children, ensuring our seniors live full and independent lives with dignity, enhancing education and training for tomorrow’s workforce, putting immigrants on the pathway to citizenship, securing our community’s housing and financial well-being, and providing all with equal access to justice,” the organization’s mission statement reads.

When she founded the CASL, the organization only had a budget of $16,000. Now, CASL has over 500 people working for the community with a budget of $34 million.

Wong was also a founding board member of the National Asian Pacific Center on Aging and the Chinese Immigrant Service Agencies Network International.

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Among her many achievements was creating a senior housing facility that was later named the Albert and Bernie Wong Senior Living Community and the Kam L. Liu Community Service Center.

Wong helped form Chicago Chinatown into one legislative district and later played a part in electing Illinois’s first elected Asian American legislator from that same district.

In addition to advocating for Chinese immigrants, Wong also worked for Asians and Pacific Islanders, and other immigrant communities.

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Former President Barrack Obama honored Wong for her service to the community in 2012 with the “Champions of Change” award. Senator Dick Durbin also marked her retirement from CASL in 2016 with a tribute in Congress.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot bestowed Wong with the Woman’s History Month Legacy Award last month.

She also became the first Asian appointed in the boards of United Way of Metropolitan Chicago and the Chicago Public Library.

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Wong was honored on Tuesday by Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton, Governor of Illinois J.B. Pritzker and others more following the news of her death.

Featured Image via Career 911 MOOC (left) and YWCA Metropolitan Chicago (right)

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