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Making a Big Impression

17 December 2006

Shirley Wong

For someone who is just over 5 feet tall, Shirley Wong makes a big impression.

Wong remembers the first word she learned in English. As a six-year-old, in Grade 1 at Vancouver’s Lord Strathcona Elementary School in 1940, she spoke no English, only Chinese. One day when her teacher raised the flash card again, the strange hieroglyphics finally made sense. It said “baby.”

Thus began a 41-year career in education, a lifelong commitment to learning, a strong desire to give back to the community, and a new sandbox.

Wong graduated from Lord Strathcona in 1948 (“Division 3: my photo is still up on the wall”). She went into the academic stream at King Edward Secondary, took a Bachelor’s degree in Commerce at UBC, then a teacher’s certificate. She taught business education for 15 years in Burnaby high schools, completed a PhD in Education, and taught for 25 more years at UBC before ‘retiring’ in 1997.

Retirement has meant a busy schedule of travel (Wong has been to every continent except Australia) and volunteer teaching stints in Singapore, Hong Kong, China and El Salvador. She’s President of the Lord Strathcona Elementary School Alumni Association and is two-thirds of the way through her first term as a Vancouver School Board Trustee.

Wong credits her education at Lord Strathcona School with giving her the foundation that enabled all her later achievements. “It was a very traditional curriculum, so I learned grammar. And it stood me well throughout my entire academic life.”

At the 95th Anniversary of the school (in 1986) she and fellow alumnus Herb Jang hit upon the idea to start a trust fund for the school. They passed the hat and raised $10,000, which was enough to start an endowment with Vancouver Foundation.

Wong notes that because the Strathcona Alumni Fund has been wisely managed, the fund has grown. “All of the income goes back to the school,” she adds, “But there’s one condition – all the money has to be used for learning resources.”

Wong admits they bent their own rules one year…

Lord Strathcona is near Vancouver’s downtown eastside, and close to a lot of drug activity. When someone found a needle in the school sandbox, the School Board removed the box completely. “The school came to us later and said ‘Can you buy us a new sandbox?’ It was the most popular piece of equipment… So we stretched the definition of ‘learning resources.'” The new sandbox is metal-lined and has a locking lid so that it can be closed at night. Money from the endowment has also purchased literacy and numeracy materials for the school.

Wong also made a personal commitment by establishing a donor-advised fund in her name, and has also transferred ownership of her life insurance policy to benefit the school. “I know that the Foundation will always handle my money honestly,” she says. “I’m very happy with the relationship I’ve had with them over the years.”

Nowadays, people often use the word “footprint,” in vaguely scientific terms. We talk about the footprint of a building, the environmental footprint or impact of an industry. We sometimes forget that people leave footprints. Impressions, marks of their path.

There is a sandbox at 592 East Pender, at Lord Strathcona Elementary School, where Shirley Wong has left her mark. Not literally… that footprint in the sand has long been erased by the feet, hand and bum prints of thousands of young children at play. With that sandbox, Wong has left a much bigger impression, and through her endowment at Vancouver Foundation, she will leave behind an even bigger legacy.

Lord Strathcona Elementary School website:

(Story written: 2006)

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