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To say the Chinese American Service League’s (CASL) work is comprehensive, doesn’t quite do it justice. The organization is the largest Chinese social service agency in the Midwest and offers a broad range of vital support for the Chicago area Asian-American community.
The more than 41-year-old agency has more than 500 employees who help provide services at three locations. The main one is in a three-story building in Chinatown, but CASL also has a smaller location in Westmont, and a community resource center location in Mercy Hospital in Chicago. That hospital location is a one-of-a-kind model in the city working to identify social determinants of health—the additional social issues someone navigates that can be a barrier to care—as patients check out of the hospital, and offering additional resources.
CASL provides comprehensive services for any age: foundational educational and cultural programming for kids; services for seniors that ensure they live full, independent lives; English as a second language and immigration services; resources for securing housing and financial well-being; and enhancing education and job training for a stronger workforce.
“We’re serving the whole entire family versus one client at a time,” explains CASL CEO Paul Luu. “So, if we’re serving a child who’s one year old in our childcare program, we’re actually asking: How else are we helping his family? Is there a grandfather or a grandmother who needs adult day service that we can provide? Is the mother needing workforce development? Is the father needing training in a culinary training program?…We do almost everything.”
That model has proven successful and is what has helped CASL grow. Paul explains that the organization has big plans, including expanding its services farther west and, in doing so, is also open to helping other underserved communities in need.
“Yes, we will always be an anchor to Chinatown and the Chinese community, but we have made the financial investment, the time investment, the strategic investment to serve anyone who needs us, really,” Paul says. “It goes back to our belief system and our values of who we are as an organization.”
CASL relies heavily on data to inform decisions. Three years ago, its board of directors made a commitment to improving the organization’s case management system in order to better track its impact, enhance data informed practices, and pivot more quickly to best serve the community.
The organization proved it could do that seamlessly when, during the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, a local program providing free meals to seniors in Chinatown had to shut down. Paul says that put a strain on families who told CASL staff they could only last a week or two supporting their parents. Seniors in the Chinatown community were at risk of going hungry.
CASL staff members went to work utilizing their system to identify ways to move resources around, identify efficiencies, and analyze utilization rates, to offer a solution. Within a week, CASL was retrofitting an industrial kitchen and taking names of more than 300 seniors who needed to be fed. Today, the agency continues to provide three hot meals, Monday through Friday, to the residents of a nearby affordable senior housing building.
Although the need was triggered by the pandemic, after analyzing the data, CASL determined that even post-pandemic, this program will still be necessary. So, the organization is now looking to build a permanent industrial kitchen in the McKinley Park neighborhood. The investment in the new facility will help provide jobs and will serve as an expansion to CASL’s culinary training program, which is one of the areas of focus that Wintrust has contributed to.
Each year, CASL has four cohorts, with 12 to 15 participants, who go through the program to learn the trade and develop culinary skills. Then, they can move on to a 15-to-18-week rotation through CASL’s industrial kitchen to give them a more solid foundation, setting them up for a higher-paying position and more success in the food service industry. Upon graduation, participants are licensed through the state and city, and receive sanitation certifications as well.
Paul says the partnership, and Wintrust’s commitment to the culinary training program, is a great fit because of the focus on creating a deep, sustaining economic impact within this community. “Wintrust’s mission really aligns with everything in CASL’s mission and values,” Paul explains.
Since 2018, 90 students have been enrolled in the culinary training program, 74% have graduated, and 69% have gotten jobs in the industry. Obviously, the pandemic had an impact on the graduating cohort in 2020, but CASL hired those participants on to help with the senior meal program.
John E. Czyzycki, executive vice president of Wintrust Commercial Banking, has been a CASL board member for more than a decade, and knows first-hand the impact of the organization’s work.
“I have been the Treasurer of the Board for The Chinese American Service League for 14 years and have been able to witness the strong, positive impact CASL has had on the families in the Chinatown community and adjacent communities,” he says. “Wintrust is proud to support this vital organization and its continuance in serving the needs of the families in this vibrant community.”
Paul describes CASL’s approach as being two miles deep rather than two miles wide. The organization focuses on creating a meaningful, lasting impact, even if that impact is for fewer people, because that change will have a ripple effect of support.
“We have a belief that we’ll always be here for the families when they need us, but our goal should be really, strengthen these family members so they never come back,” he says. “Our dream should be: put ourselves out of business.”
With sadness, we share that Bernarda ‘Bernie’ Wong, founder and president of CASL, passed away in April 2021. We honor her decades of work and dedication to the community.