Love in Motion
Brunswick County Chamber of Commerce names Mari-Lou Wong-Chong as its Women of Impact Volunteer of the Year.
“Volunteering is love in motion,” Mari-Lou Wong-Chong says. She has been volunteering in Brunswick County since she and her husband, George, moved here in 2006, and in November 2018 her loving actions earned her the Brunswick County Chamber of Commerce’s Women of Impact’s first Volunteer of the Year award.
“The chamber’s Women in Business program developed the Women of Impact awards in an effort to champion women from diverse backgrounds and industries to ensure their achievements become part of the fabric of our community,” says Robin Beliveau, director of Brunswick County Chamber of Commerce.
Wong-Chong, a retired microbiologist with several degrees in microbiology from MC Gill University, began her volunteerism while raising her family and working for the Veterans Administration in Pittsburgh. While there, among her volunteer work, she was active in Toastmasters and founded a Panic and Anxiety Support Group.
Wong-Chong and her husband planned on golf, pickleball and travel in retirement, but she quickly realized that in addition to family fun, she wanted to continue volunteering. There was no Toastmasters International chapter in Brunswick County when she arrived, so she founded one. “Toastmasters has helped me tremendously, so I wanted to create opportunities here for others to share in that success,” she says. The chapter officially came into being in 2011. Wong-Chong has served as president and is now its vice president for membership.
Vanessa Hughes, vice president/public relations for the Brunswick Toastmasters, says, “I admire Mari-Lou for the unwavering encouragement she provides to others and for her boundless energy. She is an inspirational lady and never eases to help the people in her community.”
Hughes says that the Brunswick County Toastmasters Club seeks to foster leadership and self-confidence through public speaking for adults and has two programs geared to the younger generations. “Mari-Lou began our Youth Leadership work through her SHELL initiative with the Southern Home Education Leadership League,” “Hughes says. “Our other youth program, the Gavel Club, started by Lisa Strickland, works with high school students to aid them in developing skills needed for professional success.”
Toastmasters meets on Tuesdays in two different locations in the county, alternating at the BEMC and ATMC buildings. For information on attending a meeting, and for the exact location and time of the meetings, check the group’s website at 1592761.toastmastersclubs.org.
Wong -Chong has also donated her time and skills to other county groups, including Cape Fear Literacy Council and Sharon Methodist Church, and acts as a judge for senior projects at Brunswick High School. She has given workshops on overcoming panic and anxiety at the county’s senior centers and is widely known for her work with the annual Brunswick County Intercultural Festival at Brunswick County Community College.
Jerry L. Thrift, former operations vice president at Brunswick County Community College, works with Wong-Chong on the festival each year. “Since Mari-Lou started helping, the festival has grown greatly from its start in 2004 under Fernando Tullin with a few card tables and visits from the Mexican consul,” he says. It’s become an affair that’s spread out on the Odell Williamson Auditorium (OWA) lawn. It is now a full day of stage performances, booths, food and more. Moreover, Wong-Chong has begun to work with local schools to increase awareness of other cultures among students as a part of the festival. The 2018 festival was cancelled due to Hurricane Florence; however, Wong-Chong’s dedication was the driving force to reschedule the event, which will be held on March 10, 2019, inside the OWA.
Wong-Chong says that the importance and value of learning about other cultures and the positive impact that it makes on people cannot be measured. She says she became involved with the festival because she is passionate about diversity. “We are a diverse nation and county and that diversity is what should give us strength and not divide us,” she says. “We strive to create a positive and a supportive environment so that our residents will be able to share their culture through dance, music, art, history and food, thus fostering better understanding, awareness, acceptance and respect for each other and respect of our differences so we can all live in peace.”
On Sunday, March 10, 2019, the festival will begin at noon and go on for the afternoon. Festival attendees will be able to visit village and vendor booths and see the poster art entries before and after country-specific performances. Wong-Chong says that the Barynya Russian Dance Ensemble will stage a not-to-be-missed performance at the festival, in addition to holding a special workshop for Brunswick County Schools students on Monday, March 11. Check the Brunswick County Intercultural Festival’s Facebook page for further information about the festival.
Valerie Bannister, who nominated Wong-Chong for the Women of Impact Award, says, “Mari-Lou epitomizes the fact that we are a global community.” Bannister also notes that Wong-Chong lives a life of personal friendliness to people of all backgrounds.
Robyn Beliveau, membership engagement director at the Brunswick County Chamber of Commerce, seconds the notion that Wong-Chong is personally committed to the ideals she serves as a volunteer. “Mari-Lou is genuine in her efforts of inclusion. She is thoughtful, kind and humble. Our county is blessed to have such a powerhouse working on our behalf to ensure Brunswick County is a wonderful place to live, work and play.”
Wong-Chong says she gets more than she gives out of volunteering. “Volunteering is good for the soul and heart,” she says. “Lifting someone in need is a good exercise for one’s heart. Making a difference in someone’s life and community is the most wonderful feeling a volunteer gets.”
As for being named volunteer of the year, Wong-Chong says it was totally unexpected. “I was humbled. I accepted the honor on behalf of all volunteers in Brunswick County who make a difference in someone’s life and make this county, our very own Brunswick County, a better place.”