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.

International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day. For more than a century, women and men of all races and ethnicities have come together to celebrate the achievements and progress towards gender equality. We celebrate the heroic sacrifices of brave women before us – women who spent their lives paving a path towards gender parity. International Women’s Day also reminds us of what still needs to be done and serves as a call to action to continue the fight.

Over the last century we have seen women become elected officials, sports icons and astronauts. Women now have a higher college admission rate than men and more women go to the polls to vote than ever before. Yet the challenges for American women are still substantial: 200,000 single moms live on an income less than $40,000, 85% of domestic abuse victims are women, 2/3 of illiterate people are women and the list goes on. And that’s just in the U.S.

Our work at United Way of Metro Chicago is focused on advancing the common good and providing the basic needs and opportunities that all people deserve. We celebrate International Women’s Day to bring awareness to the fight for gender equality and basic human rights that women continue to face in our own communities.

At United Way of Metro Chicago, we take this global issue and address it locally. For example, in West Chicago many working mothers have trouble accessing the products needed to meet their family’s basic needs. In partnership with the school district and WeGo Together for Kids, the lead agency in the West Chicago Neighborhood Network, United Way helped to address this issue through a series of Family Wellness Nights. Each event offered free medical, dental and vision screenings, free water filters, health and utility savings education sessions and $5.00 car seats. Throughout Chicago, approximately 50% of all women who are homeless report that domestic violence was the immediate cause of their homelessness. To support these women we partner with women’s shelters that provide a safe haven, as well as the support and services necessary for victims of domestic violence to experience recovery and healing.

We fight for every person in every neighborhood. No matter the obstacles. No matter the odds. We celebrate International Women’s Day because it’s in our DNA. International Women’s Day is an opportunity for people all over the world to coalesce and fight against the gender inequality that is still taking place. The challenges that women face are far-reaching and impactful, but the largest and most complex challenges can always be solved through the power of a community working together towards a common goal.

To join the fight share why International Women’s Day is important to you in the comments below, or by tagging us @unitedwaychi on social media.

A Safe Haven for Victims of Domestic Violence

The scope of domestic violence is vast and many times hidden behind closed doors leaving victims feeling trapped with nowhere to turn.  But for Megan,* enough was enough. She courageously began planning how she and her children would escape from her abuser months in advance. It all started with a phone call to Family Shelter Service’s 24-hour hotline.  Megan shared her story with a counselor who was able to coach her on the safest way to get out of the violent situation and where she could go for safety.

Lauren DeSimone, Director of Advancement at Family Shelter Service, based in the western suburb of Downers Grove, said that brave phone call was the first big step in Megan’s journey to free herself from her abuser. However, due to the state budget crisis, the organization was facing its own battle, including the possibility of cuts to vital programs that save the lives of people like Megan and her family.

“The situation was dire,” said DeSimone. “Without the support of United Way, more victims of domestic violence could have died.” DeSimone explained that due to the lack of funding, the shelter’s resources and capacity to accept victims was severely limited, forcing them to turn away almost 15,000 people. This means many victims inevitably returned to the abusive relationships they were trying to flee.  We at United Way of Metro Chicago fight for the safety of all individuals, and partner with agencies working to empower those impacted by the epidemic of domestic violence.  With United Way’s support, Family Shelter Service was able to not only maintain, but expand life saving services, including building more rooms to house abuse victims and hiring more counselors to address clients’ mental health needs.  DeSimone explains that support is needed now more than ever. “In 2017 (approximately) five women lost their lives as a result of domestic violence in DuPage County.” With the number of fatal cases of domestic violence increasing, it’s vital that there are strong social services in place to protect victims like Megan’s family.

On that cold November morning, Megan hastily bundled up her two boys and began the journey that would change the course of their future. Once her family was comfortably settled at Family Shelter Service’s facility, Megan was able to start rebuilding her life. She sought the expert assistance of one of the organization’s Court Advocates who accompanied her to the courthouse, where she was granted an order of protection from her abuser.  Megan and her children also participated in group and individual counseling. She was able to focus on healing, knowing that her children were finally safe and able to sleep without fear.

It’s the work of United Way partner organizations like Family Shelter Service that truly makes a difference in our community.  Cuts to social services can greatly impact an organization’s ability to continue providing vital life saving services and the result could be catastrophic for people like Megan who have nowhere else to turn. 

If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence call the Family Shelter Service hotline at 630-469-5650.

Make a gift today to support United Way’s safety net impact work.

Donate Today

*Name has been changed.

Cultivating a Culture of Mentorship in Austin

At the age of 16, Austin resident Jeramie McGill was at a crossroads in his life.  Like many high school students, he was trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his future.  It was his involvement in a youth mentoring sports program provided by St. Joseph Services (SJS), a partner agency of United Way of Metro Chicago, where he would discover his passion for helping others and become a leader in his community.

His work in youth and community development began after he graduated high school through the support of a Youth Mentor at SJS, Bradly Johnson.  “When I graduated, I had no direction,” said Jeramie. “Bradly didn’t want me to end up taking the wrong path, so he encouraged me to stay involved with the organization.”  This advice would be the catalyst that would solidify Jeramie’s passion for helping Austin’s youth to reach their fullest potential.  

Jeramie transitioned seamlessly from SJS mentee to volunteer. Jeramie found himself thriving as a mentor to kids participating in SJS after school programs and coordinating basketball activities as part of the open gym program. His drive earned him a title and a paycheck; being offered the role of part-time program coordinator. “I was ecstatic when I was offered the job,” Jeramie said.  “I’ve been with the organization ever since then, and have never stopped loving it and giving it my all.” As Jeramie transitioned from mentee to mentor the baton was officially handed down from Bradly, and Jeramie realized he had found his calling.

Now 28 years-old, he boasts the title of Youth Development and Outreach Manager for St. Joseph Services.  Jeramie  works to build the relationship he had with his mentor, with his mentees, much like Bradly did for him. “Bradly was my idol – he was authentic, and he never sugar coated anything,” Jeramie said. “I follow his tactics and utilize his approach of giving honest feedback to my mentees, because it worked for me.”  Bradly and Jeramie still keep in touch to this day. 

It is bonds like this that have an everlasting impact on the lives of young people as they try to “figure it all out.” Jeramie recalled having the opportunity to build a relationship with a young man named Thomas. Thomas had difficulty expressing himself around peers and adults and didn’t like to ask for help or admit when he was wrong.  In order to break through Thomas’s barriers and help him build confidence, Jeramie would offer him rides from Austin to the SJS Humbolt Park facility.  This gesture gave them time to get to know each other.  “I want to identify their strengths first,” said Jeramie, “Because then you can translate that strength into a hobby, academic focus or a career.” After getting to know Thomas, Jeramie was able to help him improve his interpersonal skills and learned he had an interest in art.   With this knowledge, Jeramie was able to help Thomas develop and hone his passion and skills in painting, which has given him confidence and career prospects. 

Jeramie started as a participant of St. Joseph Services and through hard work and determination became a vital part of the organization. His efforts not only improve the lives of his mentees, but he also inspires them to give back to the Austin community.  United Way of Metro Chicago is proud to partner with agencies like St. Joseph Services who work to strengthen their communities through youth development, and Jeramie is a prime example of a community leader who inspires us to continue our fight for stronger neighborhoods and a stronger Chicago region.   Thank you, Jeramie McGill, for your leadership in the Austin Community!

United Way Celebrates Black History Month

Black History Month symbolizes triumph over adversity.  It’s a celebration of the heroic contributions of African American leaders who have paved a road towards racial equality.  But Black History Month doesn’t just honor leaders of the past.  It also celebrates the significant, meaningful and impactful ways the entire black community has affected our country.  Failing to appreciate the achievements of our ancestors can estrange us, divide us and hurt us as a nation. United Way stands by African American leaders who strive to encourage peace and reconciliation and discourage animosity.  We celebrate Black History Month because we support the principles black leaders  promote and the ideas they advocate.   

Chicago is host to one of the proudest African American communities in the nation.  We live in a region full of neighborhoods with rich cultures and historic successes. Our work at United Way of Metro Chicago is only possible because we can stand on the building blocks of cooperation that leaders of all races and ethnicities have laid before us. Many of our partner agencies are finding unique ways to celebrate this month, and we encourage you to do the same. Here are just a few events that our partner agencies have planned in honor of this year’s Black History Month:  

Bright Star Community Outreach

The murder of Emmett Till and his highly-publicized funeral showed the injustice of institutionalized racism and acted as a catalyst for the civil rights movement.  Bright Star Community Outreach examines this historical systemic racism and uses it as a space to open up important dialogues.  Join Bright Star on February 20th and 27th to discuss the power of collective action and the violence that is prevalent in the black community.

Gary Comer Youth Center

One of the most important goals for Black History Month is to educate youth on past leaders and their sacrifices.  Losing sight of the past can cause the same mistakes in the future.  The Gary Comer Youth Center recognizes this danger.  To teach young people about African American history, they are hosting various activities on February 21st, 23rd and 28th.

Saint Sabina Church Sanctuary

Recognizing the leaders before us is an essential aspect of Black History Month.  The Saint Sabina Church Sanctuary is hosting April Ryan, a seasoned White House correspondent and author, and Dr. Cornel West, a prestigious philosopher, activist and social critic. Both are prominent figures in their industry and their community. April Ryan will be speaking on February 23 rd and Dr. West will speak February 25rd.

Chicago Urban League

The civil rights movement is such a significant part of the African American narrative that it has become intertwined with black culture. The Black Film Fest at the Chicago Urban League will display the intersection of African American culture and civil rights.  They will screen movies and host guest speakers on February 13th, 20th and 27th. This year’s theme is #TheStoryOfOurVote.  

Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary

African American history doesn’t just start in the United States.  Countless events, going back millennia, have shaped the historical and contemporary experiences of the black community.  The Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, in collaboration with the Evanston community, has created a community project that aims to introduce viewers to the entirety of black history.  Using historical texts, art, photographs and artifacts, the project explores black history from the origins of humankind to the NFL-kneeling protests. Come by every Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday this month to see the different exhibits.

Explore Your Neighborhood: The Hidden Gems of Museum Week

It’s Museum Week in Chicago, a time to celebrate the rich art and cultures that make up the fabric of our beautiful city. The museums that are participating in this year’s event have a wealth of exciting exhibits and interactive experiences to share. However, there are dozens of hidden gems within our city’s vibrant neighborhoods that also warrant a visit. At United Way of Metro Chicago we support 60 partner communities in our region, and many of them are home to these lesser-known, but beloved neighborhood institutions. So if you plan to participate in Museum Week this year, here are a few other locations we’d recommend adding to your list of “must-sees.” Bonus: Many of them are free or have very small entry fees.
Hyde Park Art Center – Hyde Park
The Hyde Park Art Center is the oldest alternative exhibition art space in Chicago’s history. Since 1939, HPAC has strived to increase the transparency between artists and the public. It displays art by emerging or under-recognized contemporary artists living in our city.

National Veterans Art Museum – Portage Park
In 1981, a few Vietnam combat veterans put together an artistic and historical collection that would grow into the National Veterans Art Museum. The museum collects, preserves and exhibits art inspired by combat and created by veterans. Its goal is to create a space for military personnel, veterans and civilians to open a dialogue over the impact of war.

National Hellenic Museum – Greektown
Greek culture and mythology permeates throughout the Western world. The National Hellenic Museum constructs an experience where visitors can learn about Greek and Greek-American culture and its impact in the 21st century.

Block Museum of Art – Evanston
The Block Museum of Art is Northwestern University’s on-campus art museum. Through art, the museum acts as the springboard for thought-provoking discussions relevant to our lives. The Block exhibitions depict art from all disciplines, from classic to contemporary.

Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art – West Town
Not a fan of mainstream art? Visit Intuit to see works that demonstrate originality and authenticity. For more than 25 years, Intuit has brought the perspectives of outsider artists who show little to no influence from conventional art.

South Side Community Arts Center – Bronzeville
The South Side Community Art Center was the first African American-art museum in the United States. It was awarded Chicago Landmark status in 1994. The mission of the SSCAC is to preserve, conserve and promote African American art and artists, while educating the community on the value of art and culture.

Chinese-American Museum of Chicago – Chinatown
Chinese immigration to the Midwest is rarely mentioned in American history books. The Chinese-American Museum of Chicago gives visitors a glimpse of the experiences of Chinese immigrants and the culture they’ve brought to Chicago.

Garfield Park Conservatory – East Garfield Park
If you decide the museum life isn’t for you, escape the frigid Chicago winter for tropical temperatures at the Garfield Park Conservatory. Walk through six multi-faceted greenhouses and two grand exhibition halls. Instead of strolling by beautiful pieces of art, venture through a world filled with a variety of unique flora from across the planet.

United Way and Exelon’s Stay in School Initiative: Mentoring Our Regions Youth

Mentoring, at its core, provides a young person with an adult figure who is invested in their future. It’s someone who’s in their corner that they can look up to and helps them navigate their day-to-day challenges.  Research confirms that having a strong mentor relationship has profound positive effects on youth in a variety of personal, academic and professional situations.  Ultimately, mentoring enables a young person to experience personal growth and development, which in turn, can build confidence and contribute to the skills necessary for additional social and economic opportunities.  Yet one in three people will grow up without a mentor.

United Way of Metro Chicago and our corporate partner Exelon, along with the help of six partnering organizations, recognized this gap our youth face and responded by creating a program to address the issue.  The Stay in Schools (SIS) initiative provides supportive programming, academic tutoring and mentorship opportunities to young people across the Chicago region.     

Pedro Feliciano is an employee with Exelon and has been an SIS mentor for 12 years.  He said throughout his time as a mentor he’s witnessed apathetic and directionless young people transform into self-assured and motivated professionals.  For instance, Feliciano recalled meeting a young man named Justin who entered the program as a freshman in high school.  Justin was shy and lacked confidence.  Like many young adults, he didn’t have any idea what he wanted to do with his life.  Feliciano, along with other Exelon mentors, worked closely with Justin to help him reach his potential by coaching him on how to communicate in a business setting with poise and empowering him to take control of his future by having him set his own goals.      

After Justin had been in the program for a while, Feliciano recalled meeting Justin’s mom who told him she didn’t recognize her son since his participation in SIS began. “You know my son came to this program on a Saturday morning and when he came back he was a different person,” she told Feliciano. “I don’t know what you said to him, I don’t know what you did, but now he is more motivated to go to school and chase his dreams.”  Justin’s mom said he is no longer lost, but instead is excited about his future and inspired to grab life by the horns.  Justin graduated from high school and went on to culinary school to chase his dream of becoming a chef.

The care and attention that Justin received by mentors like Feliciano is representative of the support provided to all the mentees who participate in the Stay in School Initiative. 17-year-old Semetrius Holmes, who is currently enrolled in SIS, joined when he was a sophomore in high school. Much like Justin, Semetrius said upon entering the program he lacked confidence and had trouble talking to people.  Mentors from Exelon provided Semetrius internship opportunities that gave him real work experience.  Semetrius said those opportunities helped him develop his interpersonal skills and  allowed him to connect and network with peers from other communities throughout the Chicago region.  “Now I feel like I can talk to anybody,” said Semetrius. “My new motto is ‘be better than I was yesterday.’”

The Stay in School initiative has served approximately 27,000 students since its founding in 2006.  Missy Carpenter, Sr. Manager of Education here at United Way of Metro Chicago, said the program truly makes a difference in the lives of many youth in the region and is a testament to the work and vision of all those involved.  “Supportive adult relationships are crucial for young people, which is why we are so proud of the partnership with Exelon and the six Stay In School participating organizations. The initiative not only strengthens the work those organizations do with youth every day in their communities, but it also brings those young people together with Exelon’s incredibly caring and talented staff, for support and guidance,” said Carpenter. 

For many young adults, having the opportunity to meet professionals who can provide career and social guidance to them is invaluable. The mentor relationship can inspire these youth to consider their career goals at an early age and provide them with the skill set needed to help them achieve their dreams.