Young Moms Head Back to School With Support from Association House

As schools across the Chicago region get ready to re-open their doors, many students are packing up their bookbags and choosing their First Day outfits. At Association House High School in Humboldt Park, some students are not only getting themselves ready to go back to school, but their children, too. 

The high school, run by Association House, a United Way community partner, enrolls approximately 30 young parents who need childcare, a flexible schedule and additional services to support their learning. Teachers also work with students who may have slipped through the cracks at traditional public schools for a variety of reasons, including homelessness, chronic truancy, needing to work to provide for their families and substance use, said David Pieper, the school’s principal.

The moms of kids enrolled in the Family Literacy Program, including Yahaira and Leslie, celebrate graduation with Sarah, the FLP supervisor.

“We’re focused on reengaging at-risk and out-of-school youth,” David said. “These students come to us through word of mouth and referrals from other neighborhood agencies where there is a need for a wraparound service or there’s some sort of deficiency or lack of resource that needs to get fixed in order for that student to continue moving towards their high school diploma.”

Like traditional schools, Association House High School educates 150 students in math, English and history, among other studies. The school boasts a 90 percent graduation rate and is rated Level 1 by Chicago Public Schools.

But Association House teachers go beyond academics to address their students’ social and emotional needs outside of the classroom, like connecting them to childcare, housing, employment opportunities and mental health services.

“[During the enrollment process], every student will come in before they even step foot in the school and sit down with a counselor that says ‘Alright, what’s going on in your life? Let’s set a plan. Let’s identify where you might have barriers,’” David said. “If we don’t do that immediately, we will lose those students.”  


What are wraparound supports for young parents?

For young parents like Yahaira Cortez, 17, the greatest barrier to earning her diploma was the prospect of attending classes without childcare for her son Damien. Weeks after giving birth, Yahaira was able to return to school with Damien, who enrolled in the Association House High School’s childcare program.

Yahaira Cortez plays with Damien at the local library, where the students are encouraged to read to their children to promote literacy.

“I decided to come here because I had a kid at a really young age. But having a kid was no excuse. I still came to school, and I graduated a whole year earlier,” said Yahaira, who received her diploma last month. “It’s really nice. You get to see your kid throughout the day. You come down to change their diaper, you go to lunch with them, you feed them…You’re very involved with your kids even though you’re in school.”

Housed on the first floor of the 30-year-old school, the Family Literacy Program (FLP), the school’s childcare service funded in part by the United Way of Metro Chicago, provides flexibility for the young parents. Though a supervisor and volunteers are always on staff, in between and during classes, the students are expected to stop in to care for their child. They’re also encouraged to read to their children and attend literacy programs at the local library.

“At the very core of what the program is, we’re trying to get the parents to attend just one day of school. If we can get them to do that and then keep going every little step, then I think that’s huge for a lot of them,” said Sarah Schupbach, supervisor of the FLP.

In addition, students’ class schedules include parent workshops that teach them a range of life skills that benefit both them and their kids. Workshops include lessons on pregnancy and postpartum care, sexual health, goalsetting, child nutrition, building healthy relationships and how to find a job and childcare after graduation.

 “We’re building relationships and showing them that there is a safe place that you can bring your child, where your child is loved and your child is learning, and where you are also learning and you’re accepted as a parent,” Sarah said.


Parent Success = Child Success

While stable childcare and regularly attending school are top priorities for the parents, the Family Literacy Program also addresses a generational issue many children of young parents face – educational delays. To address literacy and learning deficiencies, Sarah assesses their development and creates a curriculum tailored to the children’s individual needs.

Leslie Castro, an Association House High School alumna, and her two kids play in the Family Literacy Room.

Leslie Castro, another Association House High School alumna and young mom, brought her two kids to the FLP when she enrolled at the high school. At her last school, she received no class credit after three years, and one of her children suffered abuse at the home daycare he attended, she said.

Upon enrolling in the childcare program, her son was “behind on his speaking,” but he and his sister have progressed greatly since they arrived, Leslie said proudly.  

“It was really hard for me, but when I came here to Association House it was really nice. It was a big thing now that I could spend time with my kids and be in school,” she added.

Reflecting on her time at the high school, Leslie said she especially appreciated the teachers’ involvement in her and her kids’ lives and the friendships she built with other moms.

“The teachers are awesome – they help you with everything. They really care about you, not just here in school but outside of school,” Leslie said. “In another school or maybe at your house, you don’t get that support.”

Most importantly, Leslie values the opportunities that a high school diploma will provide for her and her children, including her new administrative job at the high school.  

“I thought I couldn’t make it and this year, when they gave me my diploma, it really meant something to me,” she said. “I’m really proud of myself. It was really worth it.”

Blue Island Library Meal Program Helps Silence the Growl of Summer Hunger

On a hot July day in the south suburb of Blue Island, 16 miles from the Chicago Loop, a dozen local kids and their families trickled into the town’s quiet community library. They weren’t simply there to feed their minds with stories, but to fill their stomachs at the library’s summer lunch program.

The program, in its second year, seeks to tackle food insecurity in the community, a problem that swells in the summer months when youth don’t have access to school meals.

Kaity O’Neal, a mother of seven, learned about the program when she started working at the library. She often brings two of her kids, Kaiah, 13, and Elisha, 7, with her to work and they utilize the meal program during the summer break. “They just absolutely love it here,” Katherine said.

Elisha and Kaiah O’Neal colored and played games after their lunch at Blue Island Library’s summer meal program.

Kaiah and Elisha enjoy the snacks, but they especially love the people and activities. “I meet new friends every day and I like to read Origami books,” said Kaiah.

In the 2018 season the Blue Island Library meal program was expanded to a full week of service, and in its first 20 days has served more than 300 kids. In comparison, it served it 186 meals during last year’s 8-week stint when meals were only offered two days a week.

“Blue Island and Robbins [don’t] have a major grocery store. They got rid of it maybe six years ago,” said Ashley Palomo, a United Way-AmeriCorps member, of the region’s status as a “food desert.” To address this dilemma, the program, which is one of dozens of city Summer Food Service Programs supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, offers free lunches Monday through Friday to children of all ages.

With the help of Ashley and her fellow AmeriCorps member, Kassandra Esparza, the program’s expansion has helped to advance the Blue Island-Robbins Neighborhood Network’s goal to become a physically healthy community.

The Neighborhood Network, a coalition of social service providers who partner with United Way to improve the communities of Blue Island and Robbins, aims to reduce food insecurity for 15 percent of families served by the network by 2027.

Katherine Guzik and her daughter Alejandra took a break from their errands to visit the Blue Island Library and stumbled upon the summer meal program.

On this day, a handful of kids came specifically to the Blue Island Library for the meal program, while others were visiting and stopped in out of curiosity. Gathered at tables in a wood-paneled room filled with local historical artifacts, the kids ate their lunch of chicken Caesar wraps, honeydew, cherry tomatoes and chocolate milk.

Along with their meal, they colored, listened to music and read books, which offered a welcoming break from the humidity outdoors and a chance for their parents to scour the bookshelves upstairs.

A mother of five with a baby on the way, Katherine Guzik, learned about the program while walking through the library that day. It was her first visit, and her 8-year-old Alejandra Ramirez-Guzik was hungry for an early afternoon snack between her mother’s errands.

Like a lot of the parents in the community, Katherine was delighted to learn about the program’s goal to connect kids to meals. “It’s definitely something in the area that’s helpful. If you’ve been to other libraries, a lot of people sit around because they have nowhere else to go,” Katherine said. “It’s important to fill their stomachs.”

Former Bears Player and AmeriCorps Volunteer Spark Fruitful Friendship

When Nikko Ross arrived at Ignite, a Young Leaders United fundraiser benefiting United Way’s AmeriCorps volunteers, he anticipated a casual night of fun and celebration. Little did he know, a chat with a special guest would spark a rewarding friendship that will extend far beyond the party.

During the night’s celebrations, the 22-year-old Evanston native struck up a conversation with Israel Idonije, a former Chicago Bears player and a speaker at the annual event for young professionals. In a short time, their encounter evolved into a mentor-mentee dynamic — one that would open doors for Nikko and the kids he advises.

Nikko Ross and Israel Idonije at iF Charity’s all-star football and cheerleading camp.

“The first time we met we talked about a partnership and the energy we could get back to the kids and community,” said Nikko, a first-term AmeriCorps volunteer, serving in United Way’s Evanston Neighborhood Network.

After learning more about Nikko’s work, Israel extended an invitation for Nikko and 26 kids from Family Focus Group, a United Way-funded partner, to participate in his all-star football and cheerleading camp.

“Anytime you’re fortunate to find someone who is coming from the same heart, the same vision and there’s an opportunity to build and support and work together, that’s the dream. I’m thankful to have great people on board and great partnerships like that,” said Israel of the connection that brought Nikko and the kids to the camp.

Opening doors for Evanston youth

For 12 years, Israel has been leading the camp, which is hosted by his nonprofit iF charities, with the goal of improving kids’ social and emotional life skills and teaching them the value of teamwork. Annually, it serves more than 250 kids from underrepresented communities.

“The platform of sport helps you to learn how to work with others — it’s about supporting one another and cheering everyone on,” said Israel. “They’d drop the ball and the first few times they’re sad. But listen, you dropped the ball once, don’t dwell on it and drop it again and again. Refocus, sharpen and catch it the next time.”

“It’s learning the fundamentals of how to handle life. Wins, losses, failures,” he added.

Jelani Calhoun, 8, loved playing quarterback with his teammates at the sports camp.

For many kids, the one-day camp was their first exposure to organized sports and team building, advancing one of the Evanston Neighborhood Network’s bold goals of increasing racial and ethnic parity by connecting African-American and Latinx children to a wide-range of new, life-changing opportunities.

“They loved it,” said Nikko. “We’re giving kids the opportunities to express creativity and have fun. It’s a confidence builder for sure.”

Jelani Calhoun, an 8-year-old from Family Focus, especially liked playing quarterback at the camp. “It was really good. I was catching the ball and helping my team learn,” he said.

At the sports camp, Chayse Johnson, 10, enjoyed her first cheerleading lesson.

“It was real cheerleading, not fake. You’re actually doing it, the cheers and dancing,” said Chayse Johnson, 10, who had never learned cheerleading before. “My favorite was the lifting.”

With little hesitation, both Evanston kids exclaimed they’d be back again next year.

While the kids were elated by the experience, Nikko, who said the camp brought back memories of playing high school football, also relished the opportunity to share his love for the game with the kids he’s investing in. “People bond through a lot of things, but football brings out a brotherhood and moments to cherish,” said Nikko. “I want to give back to youth and give kids opportunities. This is where it starts.”

A Warm Welcome to Women United!

United Way of Metro Chicago’s Women’s Leadership Council is making a bold change… Welcome, Women United!

United Way of Metro Chicago’s Women United will join a network of more than 70,000 female leaders in more than 165 communities across six countries. This transition will enable the members of United Way’s Women United to maintain a local focus, while also having a stronger global impact.

As an integral part of United Way, Women United tackles systemic problems by empowering women across different industries to join forces in order to leverage ideas, expertise and resources, transforming the very conditions in which people live.

As a Chicago chapter, this group of philanthropic business leaders is specifically dedicated to finding long-term solutions to our region’s most complex challenges – barriers to quality childhood education, limited access to healthcare, housing and food insecurity, and a lack of financial or employment growth.

Most recently, Women United hosted a Mother’s Day event at Westcott Elementary School in our Auburn Gresham Neighborhood Network. The group collected beauty products and helped 50 young students make gift bags for their moms and other important women in their lives. This is just one example of the group’s continued efforts to strengthen community and familial bonds, which are the foundation of strong neighborhoods.

All members of Women United are dedicated to advocating, volunteering and fundraising for the most vulnerable in our community. Through a diverse set of backgrounds and a shared focus on a common goal, they are positioned to create lasting change.

Let’s introduce you to the driving forces behind United Way’s Women United, who are also some of the most dynamic women leaders in business, health and finance in Chicago. You can also meet them in person at the Grit + Grace event on June 21st, 2018.

Interested in joining this group of local leaders in our fight for a stronger Chicago? Click here to donate and become a member today!

Celebration 2018 Recap

Big challenges face the city we love, and tackling them is not always easy. But we know we’re not in this fight alone. We’re lucky to be surrounded by hardworking volunteers, generous corporate partners and phenomenal social service agencies that understand the urgent need and are invested in the work.

That’s why we like to take a step back this time each year and show them how much we appreciate all they do at our annual Celebration event.

The 2018 Celebration luncheon on Friday, May 11 honored three extraordinary Chicago leaders and neighborhood game changers, while also recognizing our corporate and community partners. More than 400 guests joined us as we reflected on the wins of FY2018 and the strides that we have made in the fight for the health, education, financial stability and safety of every person in every neighborhood across the region.

Our three honorees were chosen for their unwavering commitment to improving outcomes for every person in our region. Lupe Fiasco, American rapper and Co-Founder of M.U.R.A.L. received the Neighborhood Game Changer Award. Jorge Ramirez, President of the Chicago Federation of Labor and Vice President of AFL-CIO, was awarded the Community Leadership Award. And Deborah DeHaas, Vice Chairman, National Managing Partner for the Center of Board Effectiveness at Deloitte, received the United Way Leadership Award.

It was a celebratory afternoon and a great chance to honor a job well done. Thank you for all who joined us. Through the generous support of our partners we raised more than $500,000 to help drive lasting change in neighborhoods across the Chicago region. We asked you to join the fight and you answered!


April Food Day 2018 Recap

661,630 people in Cook County are food insecure. That’s 12.6% of the population – 23% of whom do not qualify for Food Stamps. For our neighbors in Will County the numbers may be slightly lower – with a food insecurity rate of 7.7% – but a staggering 39% of those individuals do not qualify for Food Stamps assistance.

For those who do qualify, it’s often not enough. A family of four earning less than $40,000 a year will only receive an average of $200 a month for Food Stamps food assistance.

On April 25, United Way of Metro Chicago hosted the annual April Food Day food drive and inaugural luncheon to address the issue of hunger across the South-Southwest suburban region.

More than 128,000 pounds of food were collected this year, exceeding last year’s goal of 109,000 pounds. All donations were taken to the Tinley Park Convention Center the day of the event, where they were sorted and packaged by a group of volunteers, including students from the surrounding school districts.

Southland residents, politicians and business leaders joined the United Way South-Southwest regional team at the inaugural April Food Day luncheon, honoring leaders in our community. Chicago Southland Convention & Visitors Bureau received the Community Award, Tinley Park Convention Center received the Business Award, and Johanns Williams, United Way South Suburban regional board member and Regional Franchise Service Director for LaQuinta Inns & Suites, received the Individual Leadership Award.

Our keynote speaker for the luncheon, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, shared her story and how her childhood in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project made this an issue close to her heart. Having grown up all too familiar with what it feels like to face food insecurity, Ms. Foxx discussed the importance of addressing the issue of hunger in order to help individuals and families reach their fullest potential.

Meeting these basic needs lays a strong foundation in United Way’s fight for the health, education and financial stability of every person in the region. The work is not over yet, but the food and supplies raised through this year’s April Food Day efforts are a crucial step in providing for the residents of the South-Southwest Suburban region – and a big reason to celebrate.

Little Village Residents Take Steps to Shed Childhood Obesity

On a frigid January morning, residents of Marshall Square, an enclave of Southwest Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, set out on a mission to improve their community’s health.

With clipboards in hand, the volunteers, led by United Way of Metro Chicago’s community partner Marshall Square Resource Network, were trained to assess the walkability of their streets in preparation for next week’s formal study.

“We realize our streets aren’t the best places for our children to be,” said Jennifer Idrovo, the Neighborhood Network director of MSRN. “In order to promote a healthy lifestyle, we have to make them safe.”

In addition to poor eating habits and the high price of healthy foods, a neighborhood’s poor walkability and limited access to safe outdoor space can contribute to childhood obesity, a problem too many children in Marshall Square face.

Situated between North and South Lawndale, Little Village is home to a large Hispanic community, vibrant Mexican culture and one of the highest rates of childhood obesity in the city.

About 32 percent of its kids are overweight or obese. That’s twice the national average.

Marshall Square Resource Network works to improve kids’ health through efforts like the walkability study. Its findings will help community leaders resolve environmental obstacles that hinder outdoor activity, like unsafe intersections and hazardous sidewalks.

Together, we have a bold goal to increase the percentage of healthy weight children in Marshall Square from 51 percent to 60 percent by 2020.

To help get us there, our community partners will create programs that increase the availability of obesity prevention and weight loss services at neighborhood schools and produce obesity reduction programs at two community health centers. Starting this spring, an afterschool walking club for neighborhood kids will take its first steps.

But we will need your help, too.

Get involved and meet your neighbors outside of Cocula Restaurant in Little Village on Tuesday, April 24 from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. to conduct the walkability study. You can also join the fight by donating to United Way’s health impact area. Your contribution will support our efforts to reduce childhood obesity and create healthier and more vibrant community for thousands of growing children across the Chicago region.

A City of Neighbors

Chicago is not only a city of neighborhoods – it’s a city of neighbors.

At United Way of Metro Chicago, we’re in the business of meeting our neighbors all across the city and suburbs. We understand that people living in our communities of focus often know better than anyone else what their communities need, so we dedicate our resources to helping our agency partners best meet their goals.

This extends to our volunteering. We know that volunteers can make a big difference for cash-strapped non-profit organizations, but we also know that preparing for a volunteer’s arrival or being available to answer their questions requires staff capacity. That’s why we ask our agencies to tell us when and how they can use volunteer assistance in order to help them find the support they need.

Fortunately, we have amazing volunteers who give us endless reasons to celebrate this National Volunteer Week. Did you know that people who volunteer report being both happier and healthier than those who don’t? They are also likely to derive great satisfaction from having made a difference by serving others.

Volunteers with United Way partners and programs also have a chance to meet some incredible neighbors.

Neighbors like Principal Michael Hinton at Hoyne Elementary School in South Chicago, who hosted our United for the Holidays event last December. Principal Hinton cares deeply about his students and getting them the resources they need, especially when their needs include basic items such as winter coats and a warm meal. His hospitality extends through his staff and students, all of whom welcomed our volunteers—often with hugs—into their school.

Or neighbors who accessed free tax preparation assistance through the Center for Economic Progress’s VITA program, like a father of four from the Brighton Park community. This neighbor, who supports his entire family on a $27,000 income, worked with volunteer tax preparers who helped him access a huge tax refund with the EITC tax credit. When he learned of his refund, he thanked the volunteers with quiet dignity and genuine gratefulness.

Sometimes our neighbors are children, like the pre-school students who attend Carole Robertson Center for Learning in North Lawndale. They loved nothing more than having their faces painted at a summer carnival hosted in the Center’s backyard, which was made possible thanks to the creativity and steady hand of volunteers.

If you’re ready to start meeting your neighbors, we hope you’ll check out our new Volunteer Calendar. We created this calendar to allow our agency partners to tell us about their volunteer needs, and to give potential volunteers a clear picture of how they can help their communities. There are opportunities for groups and individuals at agencies in the city and the suburbs. Some need volunteers to support a one-time project, while others need people who can commit to come back week after week.

All of our opportunities provide volunteers with the chance to meet their neighbors and serve the communities in greatest need.

We hope you’ll come out and start meeting your neighbors too.

Make An Impact This Tax Season

The 2017 tax season is underway, and folks are hastily filing their taxes. The accompanying refund is always a welcome site for taxpayers, as the extra cash can give some people an opportunity to splurge on a nice dinner or save for an upcoming vacation. But for others, the tax return is necessary in order to pay for this week’s groceries or next month’s rent.

The most elementary components of our financial system can be difficult to understand, and the new federal tax-reform law has made substantial changes to a topic that is already extremely complex. Some people can hire qualified tax preparers to help them receive the full benefit of their tax return – but others can’t afford that luxury. For low-income families, a tax refund can be an opportunity to alleviate heavy financial distress, yet without help many will only see a fraction of their total refund, if any at all.

To tackle this challenge, we support Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) programs in our Neighborhood Networks. These services offer free tax assistance for households that make $54,000 or less, persons with disabilities and taxpayers for whom English is a second language. VITA programs have a high accuracy rate and are trusted in the neighborhoods in which they operate, which is perfect for low-income families who are often left susceptible to predatory tax preparation practices.

Ladder Up is one of our partners in this work. In 2017 they engaged over 1,000 volunteers who helped secure $17.5 million in tax refunds for the community. Ladder Up has also incorporated financial literacy services that help educate taxpayers about other eligibilities, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a refundable credit for low-income workers that can reduce their taxes while increasing their refund.

Jennifer Lambert, Ladder Up’s TAP Program Manager, believes that tax season is an opportunity to invest in the community on a broader scale. “We’ve begun to try to integrate financial literacy with the tax assistance workshops because the two programs are so closely intertwined,” Lambert explains. “Many of our clients return year after year, but ultimately our goal is to give them skills to do these things on their own.”

Ladder Up’s tax assistance program relies on a group of generous volunteers who give up their time during the busy tax season. Some of the volunteers that serve with Ladder Up are in the finance or law industry, but “off-the-street” volunteers make up a significant portion of their volunteer base as well. And there’s always a need. At United Way, part of our mission is to fight for the financial stability of every person in Chicago. In order to continue offering programs like VITA and financial literacy resources, we need your help! Our partners at Ladder Up and Center for Economic Progress still need volunteers. Join the fight for a stronger and more financially stable region. Click here to get involved and volunteer with a VITA program near you.

The 4th Annual YLS IGNITE

The 4th annual YLS IGNITE was one of our most successful yet! This event is an opportunity for young philanthropists of the Young Leaders Society to help raise funds for a different United Way program each year, all while having a fun-filled evening. This year’s event was at Savage Smyth, one of Chicago’s hottest venues. We were joined by Israel Idonije, founder of iF Charities and former Defensive End for the Chicago Bears, as well as our emcee for the evening, WGN-TV anchor, Dan Ponce. The festivities included a live band, The Local Jokes, as well as dancing, drinks, a photo booth and a rooftop ice skating rink.

IGNITE was made possible by the generous donations of 26 corporate sponsors, including our patron sponsors, Exelon and the Skender Foundation. After thoughtful donations, ticket sales and silent auction proceeds, the event raised more than $95,000.

The proceeds from IGNITE will help support our AmeriCorps members’ work across the Chicago region. With these donations, United Way will have the resources to provide members with invaluable training sessions and to maintain their community-service programs. Thanks to YLS and the annual IGNITE event, the amazing service of the AmeriCorps members will have an even greater impact within our communities.