Blog post submitted on behalf of Mary Teeter, Development Manager at North Shore United Way.
“To start, I can’t tell you how relieved I was to know that United Way was looking at this particular area with an interest in funding.”
Erika Alcibar is a Latino and Youth Program Coordinator for Family Service: Prevention, Education & Counseling NFP, a United Way Partner Agency in Highland Park. The agency is more than 80 years old, and serves 20 communities in Southern Lake and Northern Cook County.
But a lot of people do not even equate this region with the growing need seen across Chicagoland.
“When we think of the North Shore, we don’t think about families in need,” Erika said with concern. “I think that United Way wanting to bring resources to our area will not only raise awareness, but also allow us to work with the families who need it most.”
On the North Shore, more than half the population has experienced some form of job loss, and requests for health and human service support have increased by 30% alone in the last year. In Highwood, just around the corner from Family Services, nearly one in four families with children live in poverty. Erika says that some of the young people they serve are getting up to just one meal a day.
“We have students who are fainting in the hallway because they’re not getting enough to eat,” said Erika. “We have a recent problem with gangs in North Chicago coming in to recruit our youth. We have a lot of the problems we’d be typically seeing in more urban communities — but it’s happening here and it’s very real.”
With the help of United Way funding, under LIVE UNITED 2020’s Education Initiative, Erika and her colleagues are now able to direct resources where they’re needed most.
In an area with a growing Spanish-speaking population, Family Service has a long history of bilingual services. The agency has been offering bilingual counseling services for 30 years, and 14 years ago, opened up “Nuestro Center,” (“our center” in Spanish), which in a way has been a welcome center for immigrant families in the community.
Nuestro Center is at the heart of their youth programming. There’s tutoring, ESL classes, health screenings, art clubs, homework clubs, computer trainings, soccer leagues, field trips, after school programs, summer programs, mentorships… The center and the nearest high school are a hub of community activities.
Traditionally, some services have targeted first through fifth graders; while the Latino Youth Initiative was geared towards ensuring high school students have the support they need to graduate. But the agency realized they had a gap in services.
“Middle school children, while still being serviced indirectly — a lot of families we serve have children in middle school — but middle school children did not have a program of their own,” Erika explained.
Research has shown that 9th grade is the “make it or break” year for determining if a student will complete high school. If a student can successfully pass through middle school, and transition to high school prepared to succeed, chances are the student will graduate on time.
“Through this [large United Way] grant, we now have this ability to develop a program that will serve these students,” said Erika.
This year, Erika’s team launched the YESS (Youth Education Support and Success) program, geared at middle school students. The Northwood Junior High School will act as a weekday hub where services occur, but the Nuestro Center functions as the weekend drop off point for students.
Programming started at the beginning of the school year — but Family Service hosted its grand opening of the new Nuestro Center (at a new location) in November.
“[The grand opening] was our first opportunity to bring the community and all of our supporters into our space and show them the good work we do, and all we were able to accomplish through their support,” Erika explained.
“One of the biggest concerns that we kept hearing from school staff, administration and even the families in the communities is that their young children don’t have a place in Highwood to hang out. A lot of them don’t have the money to hang out at their local Starbucks or pizza place. With Nuestro Center opening their doors, the YESS program will have a safe space for them to be in.”
Programs like YESS in Highwood and Highland Park represent a cornerstone in United Way networks’ LIVE UNITED 2020 tri-focus. LIVE UNITED 2020 is geared towards transforming communities of greatest need over the next decade, by investing in education, health and financial stability programs.
This year, through the Education Initiative, the North Shore United Way invested more than $100,000 in Highwood and Highland Park education programs for early learners (age 0-5) and middle school students. Family Service, in serving the majority of our community’s Latino and immigrant students, plays an integral role in United Way’s bold vision for the future.
“A lot of the parents don’t speak enough English to walk into the school and ask about their children’s education,” said Erika. “We’re functioning as a link to other services in the community, because we have the relationships with the students and the families.”
During the holiday season, when the excitement is already so often wrapped around children, she reminds others that the greatest gift to give is education. As Erika looks to the future, she wants youth to be educated and capable, allowing them to access the resources they need to be a self advocate and take on whatever will comes next.
“Whatever [holiday] presents we give — they will only last a few years. An education will last forever,” said Erika. “It’s what they can take on and share with their children.”
Support United Way in New Year. Bright Future. — give the gift of education this season.