The Line That Connects: OfficeMax & The Berwyn Community School Initiative

After a year of planning, United Way of DuPage/West Cook, in partnership with United Way of Metropolitan Chicago, was preparing to launch LIVE UNITED 2020, a decade long vision to transform communities of greatest need throughout our region. At the same time, the OfficeMax Foundation was gearing up to make one of their largest philanthropic investments into a school sponsorship. United Way had recently identified the Berwyn region as one of its target communities. In a neighborhood where 63% of students are low income and will be entering a high school with the lowest graduation rate in west Cook County, Freedom Middle School and Youth Crossroads are partnering to create the Berwyn Community School Initiative, a program aimed at providing the highest quality classroom and extracurricular activities to enhance the lives of students and their families. Following the community school model, The Berwyn Community School Initiative ensures families and students are provided with an array of on-site programming and services that are essential to the building blocks of a quality life- income, education and health. Programs and services range from tutoring and mentoring to tax assistance and nutrition classes. Each community school is unique to its respective community as the programs are developed through different partnerships with agencies, businesses, families, students and residents. While the programs and services of a community school are fundamental to improving a population, they can also be expensive and difficult to fund. Understanding the potential of the community school model and the necessity for funding, OfficeMax Incorporated, headquartered in Naperville, stepped up to the plate to adopt and help maintain a community school in one of United Way’s target Partner Communities. Recognizing United Way’s expertise in identifying community needs and delivering results, OfficeMax granted $1 million over three years to support Freedom Middle School and Youth Crossroads and back their mission to improve education by boosting classroom and community services. “We are excited to partner with United Way on its Education Initiative and to be the first company to adopt a community school,” explained Carolynn Brooks, President of OfficeMax Charitable Foundation. “Education is an important cause for OfficeMax because, as a leading office products supplier, we interact with the education community on a daily basis. When we help improve education, we can help improve entire communities.” On August 22, United Way and OfficeMax surprised the Principal of Freedom Middle School, Jim Calabrese, and the Executive Director of Youth Crossroads, Dave Terrazino, with a check addressed to the Berwyn Community School Initiative. This money will allow Freedom Middle School and Youth Crossroads to supply their students and families with the resources and education needed to achieve success. “One of the things we know is that it is extremely difficult to catch students up once they have fallen behind without a tremendous amount of resources,” said Jim Calabrese, Principal at Freedom Middle School. “With the help of this funding, we are able to offer an after school program to do just that- catch students up in time for high school. The benefits are nearly endless for our students and in turn, our community.”

Breaking A World Record In Early Childhood Education

I believe every child deserves the chance to succeed. Millions of children in low-income neighborhoods across the country are at risk of school failure before they even enter kindergarten. United Way is kicking off our early childhood education investments by participating in the 2011 Jumpstart’s Read for the Record campaign. This national effort will mobilize adults and children to close the early education achievement gap by setting a world record across the country for the largest shared reading experience in a single day. On October 6, more than 2 million voices will call for an end to America’s early education achievement gap by reading Llama Llama Red Pajama by Anna Dewdney. United Way of DuPage/West Cook board members and volunteers from our Education Investment Panel, will wear their LIVE UNITED t-shirts and spend the morning reading to children at four of our local early education partner organizations: Center for Independence, Easter Seals, Oak Park & River Forest Day Nursery and Parenthesis. Sit down to read in your community. Stand up for children everywhere! Photo Credit: Tulane Publication

Coming Together for Community Schools

There are some days you wake up and are proud and thankful for where you work. The day we found out OfficeMax had chosen to partner with United Way on a community school grant was one of those days. I have had the pleasure of working with OfficeMax on their philanthropic initiatives for the past several years. One thing that has always been prominent in the conversations with them is that they truly understand the value of a good education. That is why, as part of their corporate responsibility commitment, they invest in programs that support education and teacher development. One day, United Way of DuPage/West Cook was able to share with them our LIVE UNITED 2020 vision and our investment in community schools within our education focus area. Coincidentally, the OfficeMax Foundation was gearing up to make one of their largest philanthropic investments into a school sponsorship. Recognizing United Way’s expertise in identifying community needs and delivering results, OfficeMax chose to invest in United Way’s Berwyn community school initiative with a $1million, 3 year investment to Freedom Middle School. The drive and devotion of the Principal Jim Calabrese to his students at Freedom Middle School inspired OfficeMax as well as United Way staff. He is the reason his school was chosen for this grant, and OfficeMax wanted to do something special to announce this partnership. During a meeting to discuss the United Way grant, OfficeMax was able to present Principal Calabrese with the check for $1million. Needless to say, he was surprised, excited, grateful and overwhelmed with the commitment from OfficeMax. Principal Calabrese has said they will achieve the results they put forth in the proposal with our without the grant money. This is the attitude that secured the grant for this school from OfficeMax and the grant will enable them to reach their goals that much quicker. During this whole process, I have been privileged to work with some of the most caring, dedicated individuals on all sides. This grant is one huge leap in the right direction for investing in education and I am proud to have had a part in it. I hope that with this money, Freedom Middle School is able to provide the highest quality classroom and extracurricular learning to their students. I know that the school has staff and faculty who are committed to providing their students with the best education, OfficeMax has the resources necessary to see this through, and United Way has the knowledge and leadership to keep this initiative on track. Because of this, I believe this community school has all it needs to prepare the students of Freedom Middle School for success in high school. This is just one example of corporate and community partners coming together to invest in community change. This grant and the enthusiasm of everyone involved has inspired me to look to a brighter future for education. My hope is that this investment will strengthen the community of Berwyn and will serve as a model to be replicated throughout our region. Investing in the learning of our kids is investing in those who will one day be our neighbors, co-workers and leaders. Investing in our kids is investing in our future. I thank Freedom Middle School, OfficeMax and United Way for their commitment to education. Posted on behalf of Laura Olson, Fundraising Manager at United Way of DuPage/West Cook.

Give an Hour. Give a Saturday. Give Your Best.

Jessica on Swing in Shadow Jessica is nine; she likes butterflies and the color purple. She dreams of traveling the world and being a singer. She is part of a single-parent family, and there is never a dull moment with her four-year old brother and her mother’s full-time job as an elderly care-giver. I am her mentor. I go once a week to Willowbrook Corner and the community center in the housing complex where she lives. Although just miles from the affluent communities of Burr Ridge and Hinsdale in DuPage County, this is truly a “pocket” of poverty where over 75% of students in the local district are low-income.   Every Monday, Jessica’s mom drops her off and picks her up from the program like clockwork. Jessica isn’t allowed to walk even though their apartment is in the same complex as where we meet. Like many across our nation, Jessica’s family is doing the best they can to make ends meet while also participating in programs to provide them with opportunities for the best and brightest future. If I were not working for United Way, I often think I would be a teacher.   It was this in part that encouraged me to seek out the mentoring program through one of United Way’s partner organizations, Metropolitan Family Services (MFS). From the healthy snack and physical activities, to the homework help I provide and our talks about Jessica’s future, this program encompasses the cornerstones of United Way’s work– the importance of financial stability, quality education, and a healthy lifestyle. The program is shaping youth who will positively contribute   to our communities and, as a result, face a better future. Once a child like Jessica enters the services, they and their family are provided with a network of support beyond the one afternoon that I can offer each week. Some days Jessica and I do craft projects and add to the scrapbook we started, other afternoons we fish in the pond in the apartment complex and play on the swing set outside. Sometimes she is silly and tells me funny stories, other times she shares things with me that I know are hard to talk about. Most of the time we are friends and confidants. Occasionally there are challenges. As a recent match, Jessica is still testing me and whether or not I am up to the challenge. One day she looks through pictures of my family; she makes fun of my dad when she sees him making a goofy face in one of the candids. She tells me she only sees her dad once every few months. The things we share and learn together– compassion, patience, determination, talking about our feelings–are life lessons not always found in books or traditional curriculum, but it is the type of support that every child deserves. There is a joy that comes with a child’s acceptance and love. There is a joy in knowing that you are helping to shape the person they will become. Sometimes kids just need someone who believes in them.   Volunteer reading, tutoring or mentoring one hour each week can change the life of a child.   This is why United Way World Wide and our local United Way are calling every person in our community to be a part of the change. Our goal is to recruit a million mentors. Think of how many kids’ lives, like Jessica’s, could be shaped by your time. I often think of who Jessica will be one day: someone that travels to Africa, someone that knows the importance of giving back to people, someone who understands how beautiful and valuable she is. As much as I’d say I signed up to be a mentor for selfless reasons, I experience more happiness than I could have ever dreamed of in being a part of this young girl’s life and thinking of the person she will become. Our nation is fortunate to have some of the best teachers and most sophisticated schools in the world, but the opportunities at our top schools are not available to students everywhere. One of every four American kids doesn’t graduate from high school. It’s up to each of us to do our part to reverse this trend and alter the trajectory of our country. United Way launched an ambitious goal to recruit one million volunteer readers, tutors and mentors, because we believe that every kid deserves to graduate on time with a great education.   We invite you to be part of the change. If you’re interested in joining the movement and becoming a mentor, please visit to find mentoring opportunities in your area. Photo Credit: Tomorrow Never Knows Posted on behalf of Jennifer Near, Fundraising Manager, Corporate Business at United Way DuPage/West Cook.

July is Elder Abuse Awareness Month

The following is a guest blog from Louise at Aging Care Connections, which serves residents of west suburban Cook County.

 “Sometimes, the only things visible are the tears…”

Each year, July is acknowledged as Elder Abuse Awareness month.   Aging Care Connections is committed to BREAKING THE SILENCE THAT SURROUNDS ELDER ABUSE IN OUR COMMUNITY. Elder abuse is a serious problem, affecting hundreds of thousands of elderly people across the country. Each year, this number increases, as does the seriousness of the allegations. However, despite the growing number of reports, elder abuse is still largely hidden under the shroud of family secrecy; elder abuse is grossly under-reported. Experts believe that only 1 out of 14 elder abuse incidents come to the attention of agencies like Aging Care Connections.  We need to BREAK THE SILENCE that surrounds this dangerous issue. One example of a case we worked on may help to demonstrate how elder abuse can happen.   (Identities have been changed to protect the confidentiality of the victim.) Mr. J, age 85, has four grown children; three live out of town and one grown daughter lives in Mr. J’s home. Mr. J’s daughter has hoarding behavior that has threatened Mr. J’s health and safety. The home has only a small path amid the clutter of magazines, papers, spoiled food and clothing that has been gathered from garage sales, etc. Mr. J’s other children are angry that Mr. J does not evict his daughter and clean up his home; his children have “washed their hands of the situation.” Mr. J’s mobility has declined due to Parkinson’s disease causing increased risk because of the clutter that surrounds him. Mr. J’s daughter becomes irate when he attempts to make any changes in the home and makes threats to leave him. Mr. J relies on this daughter for shopping assistance and meals. This case came to our attention twice. The first time the police informed our agency that the home was unsafe and asked for help in relocating Mr. J and his daughter. The home was cleaned up by family from out of state who agreed to help as they began to understand the complexities of the hoarding behavior. Both Mr. J. and his daughter were able to return to the home eventually; however, the same threats and hoarding resumed soon after. The family again felt betrayed by their father who chose to allow his daughter to “call the shots.” A few months ago, Mr. J’s daughter fell in the home and was not able to get up amid the piles that surrounded her. Mr. J called the paramedics and his daughter was ultimately diagnosed with an advanced cancer. Our elder abuse team was contacted again and began working with Mr. J and his family to consider options, make a safe plan and prevent his daughter from returning home. He now receives assistance with shopping and meals. After Mr. J made the decision that his daughter cannot return to the home, our staff arranged for him to see his daughter as often as he likes using a volunteer organization for transportation. His home has remained clean and clutter free for the past six months. This case illustrates how family dynamics impact elder abuse. There is hope for change in each victim. Professional intervention is critical to the outcome.   Thank you for caring!

How Teaching English Taught Me

The following blog is posted on behalf of Esther Hicks, Director of Community Investment at United Way DuPage/West Cook. We always say that you have the most impact when you give, advocate AND volunteer.   Over my past three years with United Way, I have definitely found this to be true.   I recently finished a two-year tutoring experience with an adult English language learner in my community, and it was literally nothing short of life-changing.   I know that the main point of tutoring or mentoring is to help your student or mentee, but especially in my case, she really helped me, too. Having grown up thoroughly middle class, it can be difficult to imagine what it’s like for someone who lives in the DuPage area to live under 100% of the Federal Poverty Level (about $22,000 for a family of four), which is the level at which we consider a family “in poverty.”   My student and her husband both work, but they are minimum-wage and somewhat seasonal jobs, so their family falls below poverty level.   Yet, somehow they make it work, and I have been so impressed with how they manage.   They have a tightly-knit extended family in the area, so her kids are often playing with cousins and they all share babysitting duty when others have to work.   They have a cellphone and some video games; they aren’t destitute, yet the family of five lives in a two-bedroom apartment. What really made an impression on me is that this family uses social services in our region that are supported by United Way in all three of our impact areas.   The literacy program that connected us is funded under our Financial Stability portfolio; her kids have all attended early childhood programs funded under our Education portfolio; and she and her husband use Access DuPage for health services, which is funded under our Health and Wellness portfolio.   They are truly the picture of the hard-working family that is able to make ends meet with a little support from community organizations. And, just like we require of our programs, I can really see the impact and results that these programs have had on her family.   Because of her increased English abilities, my student has gotten a raise and now trains newer employees at her job, and occasionally translates between Spanish-only employees and her English-only manager.  She would tell me about the healthy eating and child safety tips she received and started using from the home visitor through her youngest daughter’s early childhood program.   If she was sick and had to miss work, she would tell me that she went to her doctor and used her “medical card,” which refers to an affordable medical care program funded within our Health and Wellness portfolio. Although my student has graduated from the literacy program, I know that all she has learned will have a ripple effect throughout her family.   One of her primary goals had been to help her kids with their homework, and I know she feels more able to do that, and in turn will help ensure that they graduate high school and go on to college.   Her goal of being able to speak with doctors and teachers has already improved, and she’s an active volunteer in her children’s classrooms.   She doesn’t aspire to be a CEO or make a six-figure salary, yet I think the goals she set and the achievements she’s made are exceptional accomplishments themselves.