Growing up in Hong Kong, Edward Lik-Yuen Lai was an unruly teenager who got in some legal trouble and was wanted by the Hong Kong police at age 15 or 16. Fortunately for him, early the next morning, his mother sent him to Malaysia to stay with his aunt, an attorney. Edward remembers his family going through the options of what steps to take with this “wild kid.” The solution was a military academy in Texas. He was accepted, and found that the structured environment suited him well.
During his years at the military academy, which was a boarding school, Ed completed his first volunteer assignment working the southern flood relief in 1999 and re-discovered God. He became a youth minister in Texas before moving to New York City to do street evangelism. By this time Ed was an ordained minister of the Evangelical Christian Church, but soon decided that serving God meant going outside of the church.
That’s when Ed became the first male case manager at the New York Asian Women’s Center (which is today called WomanKind). He was later tasked with running the shelter program. This was the beginning of his service journey; he hasn’t stopped since. Ed is a two-time Crain’s New York Business Notable Healthcare Leaders and has received the President’s Call to Service Award for 4,000 hours of volunteer services in a lifetime.
His other volunteer roles and accolades are too numerous to list in this short article; but suffice it to say, Ed goes above and beyond to enrich the lives of others.
What inspires you to volunteer?
I didn’t plan on becoming a volunteer. I was called into service. Service is my higher calling.
My grandma is a devoted Christian. My sister and I grew up with her, and Grandma and I have a very tight bond. Grandma always taught us to be kind to others, to serve the Church and the people. I think my passion for service is rooted in childhood. When I was a student at San Marcos Baptist Academy, an Army ROTC boarding school in Texas, I learned to be a better citizen. I enjoy making a difference and serving God by serving others. I honestly do not have the time, but I sure have the heart. I believe that we work to provide a living, but service defines our purpose to live.
Everything I do is about service. There were years I wasn’t employed, so there was a lot of opportunity to volunteer between job searches. I found myself in healthcare where I was a home care recruiter before working my way up the ladder. Fast forward to today, I’m the senior vice president of Business Development of Bensonhurst Center for Rehabilitation, a 200-bed skilled nursing facility located in Brooklyn, NY.
Tell us about your volunteer role with the organizations you volunteer with.
I have many volunteer roles, but my primary focus is on Brooklyn Community Boards and HealthCare Choices.
For the past 10 years, I have been advocating for over 200,000 residents as part of two Brooklyn Community Boards (7 and 11). Part of my role is advising on land use and zoning. We hold public hearings and determine whether to push for the installation of bike lanes or if a developer should build luxury apartments in a moderate-income neighborhood. We discuss whether certain businesses are a good fit for the community. We are a gatekeeper of sorts, ensuring that the government makes good decisions and approves only projects that make sense and benefit the community.
I have served as treasurer and was appointed chief of health and social services. This year I am the chair of Budgets where I take full responsibility of the budget allocated to our board to ensure proper use of funds in our district. For me, this work has always been enjoyable and rewarding. Currently I’m one of the few Asian-Americans officers of the local Community Board. I lead the efforts in partnerships and collaborations with local nonprofits, houses of worship and healthcare organizations in providing the needed services to our neighborhood and relating needs and concerns to city agencies. We also conduct community health fairs and referral services.
I first joined the board of Healthcare Choices New York (HCC) as a voice for the Asian community. As a healthcare executive, I can be of service as we expand services to increase our patient encounters. Today I am still the only Asian board member. I have been serving on the board of HCC since 2017, currently as secretary/treasurer. Our mission is to help people access primary and preventive health care services. Through HCC, which consists of multi-site diagnostic and treatment centers, we’ve accommodated over 33,000 patient encounters a year in Brooklyn. As treasurer, I chair the finance committee of the board. I have complete oversight on everything budget and finance related.
What inspired you to get started with the Brooklyn Community Board?
Ironically, I wasn’t thinking about volunteering. A friend asked me to apply for the Community Board along with him, and the borough president selected me! I feel that I was put in the right place at the right time so I could help my neighbors. The more I do, the more empowered I feel to make a difference on a daily basis.
What are your long-term plans or goals for these organizations?
I’d love to serve on the Brooklyn Community Board forever but because of term limits, I will only be able to continue serving there for the next couple of years. After that, I suspect I will be guided to another role where I can continue to help my neighbors.
In the past two years, the city has lowered the age for appointment and set term limits for community boards, to attract youth to volunteer. Unfortunately, the youth’s devotion is lacking, and it shows in poor attendance. It is my hope to put in the work so future appointees are committed to the board they serve and find joy working for the community.
For HealthCare Choices, we need to continue building out quality multicultural services and growing patient encounters.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
My favorite memory working at Brooklyn Community Board was working with the nonprofit organizations and elected officials on food and PPE (personal protective equipment) donations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Seeing all the smiles behind those masks was priceless.
It’s rewarding to be in a position to advocate for my neighbors. I’ve been fortunate to help improve response times and more neighborhood patrols from the police as well as faster snow plowing services. We have also promoted bike lanes, obtained more frequent sanitation pickups and have influenced the types of businesses that come into the neighborhood. I don’t think much about what I’ve accomplished; I’m just grateful to be in a position to serve.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
Volunteering provides an opportunity to learn and grow and to network with people they might otherwise never meet. And anyone can become an inspiration to others by serving and doing what they’re called to do.
Why is it important for others to get involved with causes they care about?
Life can be difficult. Kindness makes life beautiful. Little things we do might have a profound impact on others.
Any advice for people who want to start volunteering?
My volunteer work isn’t heroic or exciting, but someone has to step up and do this behind-the-scenes work. Someone has to advocate so the neighborhood stays safe and vibrant.
Figure out what your passions and strengths are. Everyone has specific skills they can contribute as volunteers so don’t say yes to a volunteer role you’re not suited for. Volunteer in a capacity you’re good at. There are many opportunities that let you use your talents.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
I just want people to be kind to one another. Imagine if everyone does some act of kindness, and then everyone pays it forward. The world would be a better place for our future generations and all our hearts will be smiling because of it, guaranteed! Public service and community service is just so fun and rewarding! I also want people to know that there are hard-working immigrants who contribute to America’s greatness. The American Dream is alive and well for those who want it.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Ed? Find local volunteer opportunities.