For much of her life, Beatriz Merlos dreamed of doing something more for the people in her community.
At the age of 19, Beatriz left her family in Tlaxcala, Mexico to reunite with her sister and find greater opportunity in the United States. Unable to speak English and struggling to find a job, Beatriz worked tirelessly to succeed.
In time, she found work and was able to send money back home to help relocate her family to the U.S. Meanwhile, she was beginning a family of her own. Beatriz became a stay at home mom, raising her two daughters and son while her husband worked.
However, her dream to give back to her people didn’t diminish over her 17 years of caretaking.
“I put my kids first, then myself. I don’t regret that. I’m very happy to do that because I’ve always believed that every person has her moments in time. And that time wasn’t my time,” Beatriz said. “My time is now.”
Once her children were older, Beatriz began volunteering in her community of Brighton Park. She worked in various childcare positions and after-school programs before she was tapped by Brighton Park Neighborhood Council (BPNC), a United Way of Metro Chicago community partner, to organize and lead local parents as they seek to improve their lives and give back to their community.
Beatriz worked her way up, now serving as the organizer of BPNC’s parent mentor program. Coordinating 65 parents in eight schools, she empowers and guides other mothers in their journey to self-fulfillment and civil service.
“Every time that I see moms like me, it reflects myself and my past. They want to do something new. They want to be someone who helps others,” Beatriz said. “I’m very motivated to help them do something. And not necessarily something big, with small things you can [create] change.”
Outside of her work at BPNC, Beatriz values her time with family and exercises her voice in local politics. She canvasses for local candidates and keeps up-to-date on the political climate in Mexico. “One day, I hope to go back to my country and do something for my people there,” she said.
But, for now, she continues to pour her heart and soul into creating opportunities for her neighbors in Brighton Park.
Guided by the lessons of the women before her, Cheryl Francis continues the tradition of mentorship she’s experienced during her lifetime. As co-chair and co-founder of the Corporate Leadership Center in Chicago, she’s in a unique position to do just that.
Through two robust programs at the CLC, Cheryl and her team prepare, shape and empower the next generation of civil and corporate leaders, including more than 500 women through its Leading Women Executives program. “We’re trying to make corporate executives much more capable for their own benefit, the benefit of their companies and their own communities,” Cheryl said of the CLC.
Before doing so, Cheryl earned her bachelor’s degree from Cornell University and an MBA from University of Chicago. She later worked in various finance roles before serving as the executive vice president and chief financial officer of R.R. Donnelley and Sons Co.
In the early 2000s, over breakfast with a colleague, Cheryl pondered her transition from the finance world. Together, Cheryl and Sheila Penrose, a respected banker and former board chair of United Way of Metro Chicago’s Women United, laid the founding plans for CLC. “We looked each other in the eye and said ‘We’ve spent the last 25 years doing what everybody else wanted. What do we want to do?’” Cheryl said.
Through Leading Women Executives, CLC provides women with peer connections and skills, like negotiation tactics, to help them advance in their careers. “The idea behind the program is that you can advance to a certain level in an organization simply by delivering results, and then people start to have this more subjective conversation, which is “Can she or he lead?” Cheryl said. “And that’s where women tend to miss out…So, we’re trying to work with both the companies and women to get more women through that inflection point into senior leadership.”
Cheryl credits her personal mission to advance women’s economic empowerment to her mother and mother-in-law who guided and mentored her. She carries on their legacy in her day-to-day work and through community service, like supporting United Way as a member of our governing board.
And just as she guides women in the workplace and community, Cheryl invests in her daughter-in-laws, too. Soon, she will welcome a granddaughter into the world — another glimmer of hope for the future.
The fields of science, technology, engineering and math have long been dominated by men. In recent years, the tide has begun to slowly change, and women like Tina Sayadi are making their mark.
After college, with an electrical engineering degree from San Jose State, Tina quickly secured a position with Texas Instruments, a technology company and United Way of Metro Chicago corporate partner.
In the six years she’s been with the company, Tina’s worked her way across the country from her home state of California to Chicago and up to a managerial position, serving as the regional sales manager.
As she works to shape her team, Tina hopes to improve the inclusivity of her company and encourage more college-aged women to pursue engineering. “We all know everyone’s brains work differently and we approach problems differently,” she said. “People from different genders and backgrounds and cultures naturally bring something different to the table.”
Between her busy work life, visits with her family and adventurous travels across Europe and Asia, Tina’s also commits her time to advancing United Way’s mission through various fundraising and volunteer roles.
She’s a member of our North-Northwest regional board and part of the Young Leaders United committee. She also spearheads Texas Instruments’ United Way campaign in their Schaumburg office. Through quarterly volunteer events, Tina and her team have helped their neighbors prepare for jobs with mock interviews and resume review sessions, and aided United Way community partners in sorting clothes for drives.
“My passion outside of work is to find out how to make the world a better place, even through the smallest paths,” Tina said. “The feeling you get when you shutdown your computer and think about something that is much bigger than your problems at work is one of the reasons I love it. It gives you so much perspective on life.”
In the spirit of those who came before her, Marilyn Jackson strives to create educational opportunities for others. As chief strategy and engagement officer for United Way of Metro Chicago, Marilyn amplifies and encourages programs to advance that passion.
“As a country we don’t value each the person the same. Education is a key to making a difference in lives,” Marilyn said. “It unlocks so many opportunities for people, whether it’s training in a trade or college.”
Marilyn knows this firsthand. A granddaughter of Jamaican immigrants, her grandfather provided for her family with his tailoring business when they arrived to the United States. His trade skills provided a home, food, clothes and education for his children and, eventually, their children.
Prior to her career, Marilyn earned two degrees — a B.S. in Biology and Sociology from Cornell University and MBA from the Kellogg School at Northwestern University — and has since continued to immerse herself in arts, language and culture, from the bustling streets of New Delhi to the lush countryside of Cuba.
As a mother of three young adults and an involved citizen, she’s also seen firsthand the inequities and problems that plague Chicago schools. She acknowledges that many young adults growing up in urban areas aren’t equipped with the skills and opportunities needed to provide for themselves or to reach their full potential.
With United Way’s support, she’s optimistic Chicagoans can change that story, especially the women who are organizing in their communities.
“United Way is looking at problems from holistic standpoint, not just trying to address one issue, like homeless or school achievement, but looking at all the pillars of how people are affected in neighbors,” Marilyn said.
“We embrace coalitions of women because we see how powerful they are,” she added. “Women in neighborhood make things happen.”
Years ago, while working at a behavioral health company, Itadel Shalabi and Nareman Taha became frustrated with the organization’s limited response to their community’s problems. Eager to pursue a greater purpose and resolve those issues, the two friends came up with the idea for Arab American Family Services (AAFS.)
“[The] immigrant community is a community that’s been afraid and we didn’t feel that the organization was giving the best information. They were looking at our community as numbers rather than people,” Itadel said.
In 2001, in a 100-square-foot office with desks pushed against each other, Itadel and Nareman opened their non-profit’s doors, ready to advocate for issues facing Arab-Americans in the Chicago region.
“Everyone who walks through our door deserves to walk through in a dignified, honorable way. As if they’re walking into their home to talk their mom and dad about their problems and concerns,” Itadel said.
At Arab American Family Services, clients, who come from all religious and racial backgrounds, are connected to holistic supportive services to address their diverse needs, like elder care, case management, advocacy trainings, citizenship education, youth tutoring and more. For women specifically, AAFS provides crisis intervention for those who’ve experienced domestic and sexual violence and caretakers who are dealing with depression and other challenges.
Through life experience and their great passion for service, Itadel and Nareman grew their programs by constantly learning, listening and responding to the community’s needs. Additionally, they continued their studies together. Itadel earned a Master’s degree in social work from the University of Illinois at Chicago and Nareman earned her Master’s degree in public service management from DePaul University.
Today, their organization employs more than 40 individuals and serves thousands of clients yearly. “We truly believe the best way to lift immigrant communities is to give them the tools they need in their respective language so that they’re able to make decisions for themselves and their families,” said Nareman, a wife and mother of two boys.
“We can’t keep giving them a fish. We need to teach them how to fish,” Itadel added.
Through it all, the pair have forged a deep friendship — one that’s obvious in their playfulness and the ways they uplift each other. “You know the saying, where one starts the other finishes?” asks Nareman, as she describes their dynamic.
“Some people call us Yin and Yang,” Itadel added. “I think the uniqueness of the relationship on a personal and professional level has really guided us and helped us. We’re on the same page, but each knows her strengths and abilities. And I think that has formed a great partnership, where instead of being adversarial, we’re in companionship of how do we better serve the community.”
Toni Pearson doesn’t want to be on the outside looking in when it comes to decision-making in Evanston. She wants to be at the table, making changes that will help shape the lives of her grandchildren and local youth who are growing up within the city’s borders.
Despite beginning to plan her retirement, Toni recently made a dramatic career change. Last year, she traded her legal services job for a year of service with United Way of Metro Chicago’s AmeriCorps program. AmeriCorps places volunteers in social service agencies across the city, where they provide support to drive neighborhood-level change.
“I’ve always been in the field of helping people…I have a lot to offer and a lot to give,” Toni said. “I like to see the best for everybody. For me, being in the AmeriCorps program only opened up more opportunities for me to do even better in the future.”
Through the program, Toni, who was born and raised in Evanston, was placed with the Childcare Network of Evanston, a United Way community partner working to prepare youth for kindergarten and beyond. Unlike most AmeriCorps members who are exploring civil service careers for the first time, Toni was no stranger to the network’s mission to link local families to high quality early childhood education. .
A few years ago, while working, parenting and coaching her grandkids’ sports teams, Toni joined CNE’s Parent Policy Council, helping to shape the policy and decision-making of local Head Start and Early Head Start programs. She was elected vice president and, later, assumed the role of president.
Last summer, CNE leaders asked Toni to formally join the network as an AmeriCorps volunteer for the 2018-2019 year. She was tasked with revamping the network’s recruitment procedures and amplifying its community engagement. “I think it’s so special to be in a position where I give back to the community where I’ve lived my whole life. I’ve always tried to figure out ways to,” Toni said.
The opportunity to shape the systems her grandchildren and other youth are growing within activated her passion to reform and improve access to early educational opportunities. Through her AmeriCorps assignment, she hopes to motivate other parents to invest in their children’s learning and get involved in their school life — even in small ways.
“As parents we should…support the children and staff and what they’re trying to do with our kids. We can only change things by participating and being interested,” Toni said. “We’re the first teacher our children ever have. It’s good for your kids to see you participating in their education because it makes it that much more important to them.”