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.

 

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.”

 

AmeriCorps Volunteers: Chicago’s Unsung Community Champions

With three academic degrees, fluency in five languages and a slew of certificates under her belt, Gabriela Juárez Domínguez has the skills to succeed in several careers. However, the Rogers Park resident is dedicating a year of her life to improving the lives of others in the Chicago region, serving as an AmeriCorps volunteer for the United Way of Metro Chicago.

“I’m excited and really like my work,” said Gabriela, who supports social emotional learning, technology and art programs for children and teens in Little Village, a neighborhood located in southwest Chicago. “We work to improve the conditions of people.”

Having returned to the United States after 12 years in Spain, Gabriela saw AmeriCorps, a national service program operating across the country, as an opportunity to reignite her career and “update” her toolkit of skills needed to serve in the city’s non-profit sector. With nearly half her commitment fulfilled, Gabriela is making great strides toward fulfilling these goals.

Gabriela, Bianca and several United Way AmeriCorps members at this year’s Ignite event.

Ten United Way of Metro Chicago AmeriCorps members, ranging from 18-years-old to 50-years-old and at all levels of professional experience, serve in eight neighborhoods, supporting a range of programs and services that help connect residents to much-needed resources. “We want to raise up leaders already in the community to find solutions to problems,” said Bianca Cotton, United Way of Metro Chicago’s AmeriCorps program manager. “They have the training, capacity and connections to do so.”

Some, like Gabriela, are embedded in specific United Way funded community agencies, like Latinos Progresando and OPEN Center for the Arts, while others support individuals working to create a network of grassroots organizations within their communities. These “change agents” also connect with local leaders to advance their efforts and host events, like peace walks and studies to assess neighborhood safety. “They are the boots on the ground day to day, interacting with who we raise money for — teachers, students, parents,” Bianca said. “They get to see the real impact. They’re in it.”

Though they have their hands full supporting existing programs, the AmeriCorps members have an entrepreneurial spirit, too. Gabriela and others in her cohort are going above and beyond to meet unaddressed needs in their communities. For example, she’s creating and directing an art and healing program called “ActiveArte.” Another member is designing a program in South Chicago to help veterans navigate a range of health and social service systems.

In addition to their volunteer work, the AmeriCorps members receive specialized training in life and workforce development, like conflict resolution, entrepreneurship and professional etiquette. These trainings are intended to prepare the volunteers for their careers after their service. Gabriela is ahead of the game, as she’s already secured a job with OPEN Center for the Arts.

AmeriCorps members taking a break and sharing a laugh during training.

“I’ve learned leadership skills and my self-confidence is better. The workshops have made me understand the importance of networking,” Gabriela said of the training programs. “The compassion training helped me understand the community I’m working in and to be more empathetic to the community members.”

The United Way of Metro Chicago’s AmeriCorps program began in 2016 and has hosted nearly two dozen volunteers since its initiation. Applications are now open for the next cohort of AmeriCorps members who will begin their tenure in October. Bianca is searching for open-minded, service-oriented individuals who seize opportunities, want to learn and are team players. Visit our careers page for more information. 

If you’d like to help support the work of these devoted volunteers in Chicago’s neighborhoods, donate to United Way of Metro Chicago today. Your dollars will not only benefit residents in need but help shape the future careers of hardworking AmeriCorps volunteers, like Gabriela!