United Way Volunteering 101

Ashley Nicoson (right) and her engagement team plan and lead volunteer events across the city.

Chicagoans are deeply committed to the city we call “home.” We are people who care about our neighbors and want to see everybody thrive. There’s no shortage of desire to give back or opportunities to get involved, but it can be difficult to know where to start.

At United Way, we help to connect volunteers to the greatest needs in our community. Together, we’re making a difference in everyday ways, like cleaning up schools, assisting our neighbors with tax prep, mentoring the next generation and more!

In honor of National Volunteer Month, our Corporate Liaison Ashley Nicoson sat down with our Digital Content Specialist, Carley Mossbrook, to discuss why United Way of Metro Chicago is the perfect one-stop shop for volunteers who want to get involved.

Carley Mossbrook: Ashley, a lot of people may be interested in volunteering but feel like they aren’t qualified or don’t have the right skills if the project is drastically different from their day-to-day work. Are there any qualities or experiences needed to be a volunteer?

Volunteers at ITW’s 5th Annual Day of Action landscaped and painted fences at a local preschool, led outdoor sports for summer campers and packed care kits for new moms.

Ashley Nicoson: Anyone and everyone should volunteer! While we certainly see a need for skill-based volunteering, anyone can plug into local needs with a bit of research into their own interests and what is happening at agencies in their community. Volunteering is a great way to build a new hobby or continue building an established interest.

CM: Exactly. And it can be really fun! But sometimes it’s hard to gauge whether you’re making an impact through volunteer service. Can you explain why volunteers are such a vital part of United Way of Metro Chicago’s work?

AN: As we examine what community engagement means, volunteers are a crucial part in addressing needs and driving change that an agency or neighbor has. United Way is able to connect these needs with volunteers that share their time, serving as a link between resources and opportunities.

CM: Sounds like United Way is a volunteer matchmaker. I know we do a lot of that connection for our corporate partners, in particular. Why do you think corporate philanthropy and having the opportunity to volunteer through their companies is important to employees?

AN: We find that our partners value the chance to invest to in community by rolling up their sleeves and addressing a genuine need. This allows them to not only work alongside their coworkers and teammates but also pair their professional work with their personal values.

AT&T employees joined forces to make improvements at Primo Center for Women & Children in January.

CM: But employees aren’t the only ones who have something to gain from volunteerism, right? How do employers benefit from providing volunteer opportunities to their team?

AN: Volunteering provides an immense opportunity to both strengthen teams and understand United Way’s impact firsthand. A team volunteer project breathes life into philanthropic goals a company has and provides a different perspective on what it means to work together towards building stronger communities.

CM: Makes sense. I’ve seen volunteers create great memories together. That’s team-building at its finest. Now that we have the lowdown on volunteerism, where can community members and employees find opportunities to volunteer with United Way of Metro Chicago?

AN: Anyone who is interested in joining our fight to build stronger neighborhoods can visit our volunteer Opportunity Calendar to get involved! 


Blue Cap Pantry Brings Fresh Goods to a Food Desert  

On a sunny Tuesday in March, Deborah Shirley, a caretaker living in Robbins, took a break from her daily duties to pick up groceries for her and her mother. But, unfortunately for her and her neighbors, there are no quality grocery stores within the city limits.

In addition to living in an area known as a “food desert,” Deborah was working on a tight budget. Instead of trying to stretch her dollars at the closest affordable store, she stopped at Blue Cap Pantry, a food bank serving Blue Island, Robbins and the surrounding communities each and every Tuesday. Housed in a bright, airy warehouse in Blue Cap’s building, the pantry opened last September to bring healthy food options to the region.

“It’s so nice and clean, and everybody is so friendly,” Deborah said as she picked through butternut squash and other produce.

“[My mom] enjoys seeing everything I bring back…You know, it’s kinda rough out here. You gotta go to other towns to get something fresh,” she added, walking to her car. “ I really do appreciate it. Times are really hard, and it’s just a blessing to be able to come here.”

It takes a village to open the pantry doors

The creation of the Blue Cap Pantry illustrates the power of partnerships built through United Way of Metro Chicago’s Neighborhood Network Initiative.

In community meetings, members of the Blue Island-Robbins Neighborhood Network agreed that issues faced by children and families in the area, like poor health and high poverty, were rooted in a lack of access to healthy foods. Creating a pantry would be a critical first step to resolving those problems.

As they began planning, the network members realized it would take a number of partners to make the pantry successful. Blue Cap offered up their space and got approvals to run the pantry, while another partner, the Greater Chicago Food Depository, agreed to provide the food and goods to stock its shelves.

“There’s a lot of food insecurity and poverty in this area,” said Pat Thies, executive director of Blue Cap, a non-profit with robust educational and workforce training programs for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. “The whole network thought [Blue Cap] would be a good location. There’s a school right across the street, so families could bring their kids after they pick them up or stop to get food before.”

Other community partners in the Network began to connect residents to the pantry and set up booths at its entrance to provide information about other services, including elder care, medical assistance and counseling, available to local children and families.

Together, they’re not only helping to silence the growl of hunger in Blue Island and Robbins, but building a stronger, more united community that addresses residents’ various needs.

Just like a grocery store

Unlike some pantries that offer patrons prepackaged bags, Blue Cap Pantry shoppers select their own groceries, just as they would at a store .“We wanted the pantry to have a grocery store feel,” said Regina Brown-White, the pantry’s coordinator. “And we don’t do packed bags because we want to give them something they actually want to eat.”

The Greater Chicago Food Depository delivers thousands of pounds of food each Tuesday, and Blue Cap supplements the goods with additional items, like meat and dairy, which often fly off the shelves. Seasonal food drives also help fill the need at especially busy times of the year. Last year, United Way’s annual April Food Day collection provided more than 128,000 pounds of food to south-southwest suburban pantries, including the Blue Cap Pantry.

On this Tuesday, after a large shipment arrived from the Greater Chicago Food Depository, many fresh options filled the pantry’s shelves, including red onions, cabbage, baby carrots, sweet potatoes, beans, crackers, cereals and oatmeals, canned fruits, chicken quarters, yogurt, eggs, fresh multigrain breads and more.

As an additional perk, each shopping day, Regina and her volunteers cook up a dish utilizing a few products in their last shipment, giving patrons a warm meal when they arrive. It also sends them off with ideas of how to use the products in the pantry. This day, Regina noticed they had pasta, marinara sauce and bell peppers, so she cooked up a pot of spaghetti for shoppers.

Volunteers feel the impact too

Not only do the pantry’s patrons benefit from access to free food, the pantry’s volunteers, most of whom are Blue Cap clients, also shop there and learn important life skills through their service.

Each Tuesday, they open the doors and greet patrons, stock shelves, and load groceries into shoppers’ cars. This experience prepares them for jobs in the community and teaches them management skills to use in their day to day life, like planning a budget for a shopping trip.

Keith Konsoer, a long-time resident of Blue Island, has worked at the pantry every week since it opened. “I love everything here. They’re all my friends,” he said of the other volunteers.

Across the room, Sherry Kaline, another volunteer, helped patrons select personal hygiene and household goods, like lightbulbs and rubber gloves for cleaning. Sherry especially enjoys keeping her mind busy at the pantry and working with her peers to serve the community.

“I came here and found out where my home is,” she said.

* * *

Support Blue Cap Pantry with a donation to April Food Day 2019! Through donations of non-perishable food items, household goods and financial support, you can help more individuals and families in the south-southwest suburbs meet their most basic needs.


Pre-K Students Craft Healthy Behaviors Through Arts Education

When Jan Ellenstein teaches Evanston youth to paint ocean scenes with acrylics or draw cityscapes with pastels, she isn’t hoping for masterpieces. She’s hoping the young learners will acquire the confidence to see themselves as artists, no matter their skill level.

Jan, the lead children and youth facilitator at Open Studio Project (OSP), works with a dedicated team at the arts and social service organization to help prepare pre-K students for kindergarten. Using a newly-developed curriculum that incorporates arts activities, like painting and clay molding, with skill-building lessons, OSP hosts and travels to different pre-K education centers in Evanston to lead art classes. These sessions help students unleash their creativity and develop the social and emotional skills needed to be successful in school and beyond.

“The activities provide emotional tools to build positive relationships and help people appreciate differences and develop empathy,” said Chantal Healey, executive director of OSP. “We’re teaching our kids that kindness, empathy and extending a hand to those in-need really helps us become a stronger society and helps the world become a better place.”

More than an art class, students learn life skills

On a sunny Friday in February, a dozen students from The Learning Bridge Early Education Center huddled around paint-splattered sheets in the center’s carriage house to paint ocean scenes alongside Jan and her team of artists.

Before slathering turquoise, indigo and yellow paint on their white canvases — and all over their hands and arms — the group of 4- and 5-year-olds had a lively discussion about sea animals and their habitats.

Sitting in a circle with the kids, Jan scribbled an obscure fish on her paper, then asked the group if it was good enough to use for her project.

“It can be an imaginary fish. Because we all see things differently,” interjected Ned, a blonde student with lime-green hair dye on the tips of his curly locks.

“Yes! You’ve been listening!” Jan exclaimed.

For 12 weeks, OSP’s team will visit Learning Bridge to host two art classes that teach the students such lessons. The classes are a creative journey that combines social and emotional skill-building with art in a process that values self-expression over technique and abandons critiquing the students’ work.

For 45-minutes each week, the students create projects that explore machines, mammals, their bodies, the solar system and more. The projects incorporate each of the five attributes of social-emotional learning — self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision-making and relationship skills.

“In schools, the work is very skills-based, but here, it’s very process-based. There’s a lot of freedom within the structure. It’s not really about the product. It’s about the experience of doing the art and enjoying it,” Jan said of OSP’s pre-K readiness program.  

In addition to the classes for little ones, the studio project hosts therapeutic art classes for parents at their storefront studio on Sherman Avenue to complement the students’ learning. Following the 12-week program at Learning Bridge, OSP will take their art instruction to Reba Early Learning Center and the Childcare Network of Evanston.

Addressing disparities in Evanston households

Aiming to expose Evanston youth, especially those from low-income households, to new experiences and enhance their social skills, Open Studio Project partnered with Evanston Cradle to Career (EC2C), a local network of social service providers and community stakeholders, to develop the pre-K readiness program.

The program is structured to advance the network’s mission to ensure all Evanston children receive the necessary preparation to succeed in kindergarten and into their adult lives. Of the 70 children served through the program, nearly 90 percent are from low-income or economically-stressed households.

In 2017, the Illinois Report Card showed there was a 27 percent achievement gap between students from non-low-income and low-income households at Evanston Township High School. OSP leaders aim to intervene in the lives of local youth earlier, reducing this disparity in the future and creating cycles of positive emotional patterns in families.

Art programs see early successes

Prior to hosting the pre-K readiness classes, OSP piloted the social and emotional arts program in a few special needs classes at Lincoln School and King Arts Elementary School in Evanston. Students and teachers shared cheerful stories of their experience and many participants displayed more positive behaviors.

Based on early survey feedback, teachers reported that their students showed improved relationship skills, responsible decision-making, increased self-awareness, better self-management and more social awareness. Many students were also able to focus on their art projects for up to 30 minutes, a task that is often difficult for special needs students.

“Having Open Studio Project in my classroom has been a wonderful opportunity for my students to explore art through an open-ended forum,” said Leah Johnston, a teacher from Lincoln School. “Much of our school day is highly structured, and so the opportunity to have open choice and expression through something as concrete and tangible as making art is unlike many other experiences.”

In mid-February, following their program, about two dozen students from Kings Art Elementary School came to OSP’s two-room studio for an exhibition of their art. During their visit, they molded foil, tape and streamers into creations and admired their artwork hanging in the studio’s gallery.

As the group concluded their visit, one of the teachers called to the students, “If you like seeing your artwork in the gallery, clap your hands!”

Among the applause, one of the students, Lissette, 11, who sported a sequined backpack and fuzzy winter hat, excitedly slapped her hands on the armrests of her wheelchair.

Just before leaving, she turned to her teacher with a contagious smile. “I’ll show my mom, mi Madre,” she said. “I can’t believe our artwork is here!”


Black Leaders United: Boldly Championing Chicago’s Black Community

United Way of Metro Chicago is proud to announce our newest affinity group — Black Leaders United! While the Black Leaders United (BLU) Council has already been hard at work behind the scenes for several months, the group is making big moves and extending an invitation to join in this work.

Studies have shown that the zip code a person grows up in can have a profound impact on their opportunities in life. This means that some of our neighbors in Chicago will not have the same doors opened to them. Black Leaders United is dedicated to eliminating differential outcomes that disproportionately impact Black communities.

This group of innovators and collaborators are advocating for programs and initiatives that stabilize black communities throughout the city and suburbs. By establishing committees focused on United Way’s impact areas of health, education, financial stability and safety net, BLU is supporting United Way’s efforts to ensure that every family across our region has access to the wraparound services needed to succeed.

“I chose to join Black Leaders United because of the opportunity to direct resources to the communities that matter most to me,” said Tanya Anthony, BLU financial stability impact lead and budget director for Cook County. “ I am excited to work with like-minded people who are dedicated to devoting their time and talent to uplifting and ensuring equity in OUR communities.”

With an active group of professionals from a variety of backgrounds and industries, members bring a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the table. Networking events provide opportunities to learn more about the work and meet the people who are driving the change. Grow your network by working alongside a diverse set of leaders to address the issues that impact our region.

“Being a part of Black Leaders United is important to me because it generates a space in my life to provide a pathway; a pathway that will help lead the charge of enabling racial equity in our Chicagoland communities for our children,” said Jessica Caffrey, BLU executive administrator and director of real estate for Cook County.

Darnell Johnson, BLU Chairman and spiritual & social architect for Humanity Solutions Group added: “Many see the social inequity and ask ‘Why?’ Black Leaders United sees its racial equity advocacy as a catalyst to a social revolution and asks ‘Why not?’”

If you’re interested in learning more about this dynamic group, click here and RSVP today to join us for the Black Leaders United Open House on Tuesday, February 19 from 6:00pm – 7:30pm at the United Way of Metro Chicago offices. For more details, email blu@uw-mc.org.

If you’re ready to amplify United Way’s impact through fundraising, advocacy and leadership opportunities, join BLU today!

The Changemakers: United Way Volunteers Make a Difference

When she’s not sifting through spreadsheets in her audit department at KPMG, Sara Clancy lends her leadership skills to a good cause. As chair of our Young Leaders United (YLU) affinity group, Sara leads the team of philanthropic young adults through volunteer projects and planning for fundraising events.

She’s new to the gig, but her energy and commitment to United Way of Metro Chicago’s mission made her a natural fit to serve at its helm. Sara also has strong ties to the group. Since she joined four years ago, she’s served on YLU’s membership development committee and as co-chair.

Though her position has changed, her objective has stayed consistent – she hopes to make a positive difference in the lives of families across the Chicago region.

“I really like United Way’s Neighborhood Network [Initiative] and the way it works with multiple organizations to bring about a key change that the neighborhoods are focused on,” Sara said. “The biggest reason why I joined was because I feel that United Way has the biggest potential to make a large impact.”


More than a service project

In her tenure, Sara’s had the opportunity to be a part of the change she hopes to see in the Chicago region. 

She’s volunteered with her fellow YLU members to improve community gardens, paint local schools and served as a practice partner for ESL students, an opportunity that made a lasting impression.

“It was awesome to see people who had only been here for three months. You could see it in their eyes how bad they wanted to learn English because they wanted to land a good job, and this class was really helping them,” Sara said. “It was also great to have that personal connection and feel like you were able to make a difference with nothing more than speaking the language you grew up with.”

This time of year, she’s busy readying for YLU’s signature event, IGNITE. The festive, mid-winter party benefits United Way’s AmeriCorps volunteers who work in 10 neighborhoods across the Chicago region.

While Sara’s been involved in previous years, this is her first year leading the event. She’s excited for the challenge, as well as the new skills she’ll acquire and the connections she’s making in her personal and professional networks.

“It’s been a great opportunity to see something that’s outside of my normal day-to-day,” Sara said. “I find it’s a fulfilling way to get connected to the community in ways that you don’t get to in your normal life. And it’s totally doable no matter what line of work you’re in or whatever your passion is.”


Making a lasting impact

Sara is one of many dedicated volunteers who’s committed their time to advancing United Way of Metro Chicago’s mission to build stronger neighborhoods. Other United Way volunteers work in a variety of positions to fundraise for United Way or increase the capacity of our agency partners throughout the community.

Some volunteers, like Sara, plan fundraisers and complete community projects through an affinity group like YLU, Women United, Black Leaders United or United Pride. Others participate with their companies in a Day of Caring, which can be an on-site work project or packaging Care Projects as a team.

One of the most popular group volunteer opportunities, the Care Projects are completed by a large group of employees in their office. They include organizing items, like diapers and baby goods or snacks, into kits for new moms or kids in after-school programs. United Way of Metro Chicago then connects the kits with individuals and families in need through our agency partners.

If a group project or leading an affinity group isn’t for you, have no fear.

Caitlin Closser, our senior manager of corporate engagement, encourages you to make a weekly commitment to volunteer at one of our community partner agencies across the region. They’re often looking for volunteers to mentor high school students, organize donations at a food pantry or help your neighbors prepare their taxes.

“The best way to make a difference for an agency, who are our partners doing the work on the ground, is to sign up to be a committed volunteer,” Caitlin explained. “There’s lots of opportunities out there, and they need people to come back week after week. Then, they can learn the work and be more effective in getting it done.”


Commit to volunteering today!

We thank you for your consideration and commitment to advancing the mission of United Way of Metro Chicago. When we all participate, we can help ensure that our neighbors have the tools they need to reach their full potential. 

To find volunteer opportunities, check out our Volunteer Calendar today! If you’re interested in joining an affinity group, learn more here.


5 Reasons United Way Should Be On Your Giving List This Year


While the holiday season is often thought of as a time of celebration and good cheer, many of our neighbors across the region are facing challenges they can’t tackle alone. As giving is top of mind, we encourage you to do what you can to support your neighbors in need.

Here are five reasons why United Way of Metro Chicago should be at the top of your giving list!


  1. Our work is helping to relieve families, like the Jenkins Family, of high healthcare costs so they can focus on caring for their loved ones and giving back to the community.


  1. Thanks to our partners, kids like Courey have access to safe after-school spaces with programs that will prepare them for success in school and their future careers.


  1. We support neighborhood coalitions, like the Marshall Square Resource Network, that educate and organize residents to march for peace and an end to community violence, while providing robust support services to address trauma and mental health.


  1. Our employment initiatives are providing job seekers like Christopher with a roadmap to thriving careers that pay living wages.


  1. Our community partners help young moms like Yahaira stay in school and learn the life skills necessary to create a bright future for themselves and their children.


With support from people like you we’re able to make a lasting impact in the lives of our neighbors. If you’re passionate about giving back to those in need across the Chicago region, donate today!



Housing Program Provided “Safe Haven” for Recovering Veteran

Seventeen years ago, while living in a recovery home, David McGowan received an offer he couldn’t refuse. A native Chicagoan from the Cabrini-Green neighborhood, David was invited to leave the recovery home he shared with 18 other men and move into his own furnished studio apartment in Wicker Park.

Having been homeless for years, David quickly accepted the invitation, though it meant embarking on the grueling journey of recovering from drug addiction.

That life-changing offer came  in October 2001 from Renaissance Social Services (RSSI), a United Way of Metro Chicago community partner working to end homelessness in Chicago. Each year, RSSI places hundreds of the city’s most vulnerable individuals, like David, in permanent supportive housing, while also helping to tackle their other challenges.

In its 21-year tenure, leaders of Renaissance Social Services have recognized that homelessness and poor health work in tandem. Homelessness can be both the result and cause of mental and physical health issues, and stable housing, in addition to supportive health services, is a critical factor in improving people’s mental and physical health.

Utilizing a variety of wraparound services, RSSI case managers and other community providers address and help clients mitigate the root causes of their housing insecurity, including mental illness, chronic health conditions, substance use disorders and more.

In 2017, RSSI housed 252 homeless individuals and families and provided clinical services that resulted in 81 percent remaining out of inpatient psychiatric facilities, 92 percent avoiding unnecessary hospitalizations, and 82 percent achieving mental health stability.

For David, a 65-year-old Vietnam War veteran, Renaissance Social Services not only provided a place for him to call home, they gave him a “safe haven” and the structure needed to turn his life around.

“It meant the world to me. For so many years, I would get out of treatment and because I was a chronic relapser, every time I’d go back and do the same thing and get the same results,” David said of his drug use. “So, I needed a place to go where the whole set and surroundings were different. I needed a new structure, a new way. And this was the beginning.”

Since then, David’s moved to another Renaissance apartment complex in Bucktown. However, he’s maintained a sense of stability that’s encouraged his sobriety. He generously credits Renaissance Social Services for playing a critical role in his recovery by creating an environment absent of drug activity, teaching him life and homecare skills, holding him accountable for taking his medicine and helping him navigate systems so he can receive public benefits.

“When you’re in an addiction and you come out of that addiction, you are really undisciplined. You don’t know how to pay your rent. You’re not really about taking your medicines and housekeeping,” David said. “[The case managers] were my perseverance. You know how some people have a good luck charm? They were my motivators.”

With his life and health stabilized, David is closer with his family and serves as a sponsor for others living with addiction.

“If I can just stay sober, help another [person] , and be available for my children and my grandchildren and my great-children, that’s a whole bunch right there,” he said with a smile.


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.

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.

Kaiah, 13, and Elisha, 7, eat lunch at the Blue Island Library.

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.

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.

“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

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

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.

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.

“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.”