2012 Golden Circle Awardee: Rita Wang
“When I came, people looked at me with doubt[s]. I had the feeling the Asian and Chinese community was watching. I had to show them I could do it. Even some board members were skeptical.”
-Rita Wang, 1995
In 1972, a group of energetic Chinese and Chinese American college coeds and high school students (many whom were international students) gathered to address the health needs of immigrant Chinese elderly in the City. From its beginning as a small group start-up, the Chinese Information & Services Center has now become a large, service center now serving
20,000 immigrants and their families, throughout King County, Washington, (including Seattle).
In 1977, Rita Wang was hired as the Executive Director. At the time, CISC was a part-time operation with a staff of five. Wang occupied one desk in the back of the old Wing Luke Asian Museum on Eighth Avenue. In accepting the position, Wang became the first female Executive Director in the International District. In Hong Kong, Wang had managed a Family Life Education Program, which was very transformative at the time. The program taught sex education and was used as a model throughout Southeast Asia. Wang was offered the Executive Director position when she arrived in Seattle in 1977.
When Wang first came arrived, CISC provided interpreting service and support in scheduling doctor’s appointment for the elderly. At that time, those needs could be met with the agency’s modest staff. She also made conscientious efforts to gain CISC confidence and trust in the community by keeping clients’ concerns in strict confidentiality. Folks in the
International District have a notion that Chinatown was a place of gossip and soon everyone would know about their issues. Wang asserted, “Because we have been here long enough and are trustworthy, that we have their benefit at heart, they confide in us. One of the things I feel proud of is being able to establish credibility. We mean business. What you tell us is in strict confidence.” She added, “When we serve the typical elderly person, we talk about family situations, children and grandchildren being in trouble, drug abuse and alcohol.”
Eventually, under her management, the small social service agency of five grew, and in 1979, CISC moved to its location in the Bush Asia Center. The growth in the agency began when Wang obtained United Way funding in 1980. This allowed the agency to create the popular Sunshine Garden Senior Day Care Center to help care for neglected elderly and establish the ACCESS (Asian/Chinese Empowerment Social Services) Program serving adults and youth in 1987. By 1989, the Elderly Case Management Program was added. By 1993, CISC formed a year-round Youth Employment component.
Through these endeavors, Wang helped many clients find jobs. The employment program at CISC provided intensive follow-up approach. She remembered approaching a sewing company about hiring CISC clients. She explained to the employer that her clients did not have an education, but were willing to work hard. The only experience they had was sewing clothes for their families. The sewing company allowed CISC clients to come in during off hours to learn how to operate industrial grade sewing machines. When positions opened up, the CISC clients were hired. From there on, employers call CISC to help fill job openings.
In 1994, the Alzheimer Demonstration Project broke ground, serving Asians with this disease. That same year, Wang retired from CISC. She relocated to Bellingham to join her husband of 30 years, Marlon, who was working as an engineer. By the time she left, CISC served over 3,000 clients with a 22-member staff. Her work in helping establish the foundation of CISC is evident in the continuing growth and evolution of what has become a vital organization.
Wang continues to be very proud of the programs at CISC. The organization’s success over the years can be measured in the many “firsts” it has accomplished. Wang stated “We are the first special information and assistance program for minority elderly. We also for quite some time have had a nutrition program. It was the first one run by a minority agency for minorities”.