Good Neighbor Ned C. Li: Bridging Cultures

“The first night I heard Ned talk, I had tears in my eyes because of the commitment the Chinese community was making to us.” —Carol Hampe

Ned C. Li is of average stature, but to the members of the Chinese Cultural and Community Service Center in Gaithersburg, Md., he stands as tall as Yao Ming, the 7-foot 6-inch center for the Houston Rockets.

“The first thing that strikes you about Ned is his reserve, but very quickly you realize that, beneath his quiet personality, is a powerful passion to help others,” says Shu-Ping Chan, Asian-Pacific American Liaison for Montgomery County, Md.

Li, for many years a computer engineer with IBM and now a broker with H&I Real Estate of Rockville, Md., established the CCACC in 1982. He was inspired by the work of a nearby Jewish Community Center, with its wide range of services.

“We needed something that would bring the Chinese community together. We also needed to build a bridge to the larger, non-Chinese community, so we started small and kept at it,” says Li.

From its modest beginnings, meeting one night a week in a local school, CCACC has blossomed into one of the largest and most successful community organizations in Montgomery County, with 2,000 members participating in 30 educational, cultural, and athletic activities for all ages—everything from volleyball and folk dance to computer and photography class. CCACC also has 350 volunteers who run social services, such as health care assistance for the uninsured, citizenship training, and meals for the elderly and homeless.

“Ned has been a driving force behind the CCACC from the very beginning and now, as an elder statesman, he continues to put in enormous amounts of time every week,” says Chan.

“Driving force” is a good way to describe Li, 61, an enthusiastic athlete who has run two marathons and whose father played basketball regularly until he was 80. “Sports are a good way to connect with people,” says Li, who early on was organizing field days so youngsters in the community could meet and compete.

But along with programs that would meet the needs of Chinese immigrants, Li says, “I felt there was an opportunity to help non-Chinese gain a better appreciation of our culture.” A good example of that is a program called CLAPS, which stands for Chinese Language Arts Program Services.

Among those who benefit from the program are Janet Levine, her husband, Lyle, and daughters, Christina, 4, and Carolyn, 2. The Levines adopted both girls from China, and today the family spends Saturday mornings in classes at the CCACC, where they always see Li.

“Ned is always so welcoming and so interested in the children. Even though he founded the organization, he’ll do the most menial things to see that it runs smoothly. He even unrolls the carpets the smaller children sit on and then rolls them back up after class,” says Levine.

She says the program has given her family an invaluable opportunity to become part of their daughters’ cultural heritage. “I’d like my children to be fluent in Mandarin,” she says. “And my husband and I would also like to speak Chinese. It’s important that we do this as a family instead of just saying to the girls, ‘Now go learn about your culture.’”

Levine’s sister, Carol Hampe, also appreciates what Li and the CCACC are doing for her and her 8-year-old daughter, Laura, who was also adopted from China. “For a single parent, it’s hard to be able to do everything you’d like for your child. The CCACC has given us a wonderful way to connect with the Chinese community,” says Hampe. “This past year Laura was able to be onstage at the Chinese New Year celebration and sing the traditional song, ‘Gong Xi, Gong Xi,’ and she was beside herself she was so happy. She said, ‘My dream has come true!’”

Of course, Li was there. That magical moment embodied his dream, too. “We have an organization that bridges the Chinese and non-Chinese communities. We also have a team of volunteers who have learned how they can give back to society. This makes them happy,” he says quietly, “and it makes me happy, too.”

Contact Li at H&I Real Estate, 725 Anderson Ave., Rockville, MD 20850; 301/251-6263;