Year-round, women in our community and the United Way network empower others and inspire change. Some create pathways to leadership in their companies, while others organize their neighbors to build stronger neighborhoods. No matter their contribution, all do so in the service of their community. Today, on International Women’s Day, we celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women and call for advancing gender parity around the world. Join us in celebrating these seven women and all who fight for a more fair, equal future!
Click the portraits below to learn about six amazing women in our community!
Throughout parenthood, mothers and fathers often find themselves wishing for instructions on how to raise their children to be successful in school and in life. Though no such manual exists, some neighborhood organizations supported by United Way of Metro Chicago are providing parents with the next best tool – parent leadership programs.
“Parent leadership programs are a great way for parents to get to know each other and to get more involved in their community. It gives parents a voice and the confidence to speak up for their children and advocate for them within the school system and their communities,” said Jessica Lucas, a senior program manager with United Way of Metro Chicago. “It also affords parents the opportunity to build relationships and friendships throughout the community, which leads to more engaged, vibrant and safer communities.”
We, at United Way, support parent leadership programs through our Neighborhood Network Initiative, a region-wide strategy to address community challenges by driving focused collaboration between coalitions of residents, schools, nonprofits, government officials, businesses and other stakeholders.
In our West Chicago Neighborhood Network, WeGo Together for Kids teaches parents how to set and pursue personal and collective goals that can better themselves and their community.
Forty miles east, in our Brighton Park Neighborhood Network, the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council is training parents to work alongside teachers in local classrooms and play a more active role in their children’s education.
Though the two Neighborhood Networks take different approaches to parent leadership training, their outcomes are very much the same — parents are being empowered to enhance their lives, families and communities in bold, new ways.
West Chicago: Setting Personal, Collective Goals for Success
At District 33 schools in the suburbs of West Chicago, WeGo Together for Kids hosts a yearly leadership program that teaches parents how to set and achieve short- and long-term goals. The goals vary, but all are intended to improve not only the parents’ lives, but the lives of others engaged with the school.
“Our mission is really to work with the parents to build advocacy skills, to work on leadership opportunities and then find different committees or building bases in the schools or communities where the parents feel empowered and welcome to share their voice at the table,” said Ciara Thomas, community school coordinator for the district.
Some of the 15 parents who enroll in the program each year aim to learn English and develop the skills needed to help their children with their schoolwork, while others plan to obtain United States citizenship, return to school or adapt healthier lifestyles.
To achieve their goals, parents must put themselves first for a change. “[The program] kind of asks the parents to be selfish and really focus on themselves so they are fully in-tune with themselves and they can be leaders for their families and communities,” Ciara explained.
Ma. Elena Gonzalez
Once their goals are set, We Go Together for Kids’ leadership program provides a supportive environment for the parents as they pursue their next steps.
For Ma. Elena Gonzalez, a mother of two, the program helped her build the confidence to pursue her goals and opened her mind to new ways of thinking. “What has impacted me the most is to know myself more – to know what I can do and what I can become,” Ma. Elena said.
In her two years with the program, she’s accomplished one of her biggest goals – becoming a U.S. citizen. “I feel fulfilled as a person. I feel enthusiasm for myself that I managed to make this goal and that I can achieve more and go further,” Ma. Elena said.
Likewise, Maria Dolores, a mother of three who’s lived in West Chicago for 11 years, has learned the skills needed to pursue her own ambitions, like prioritizing her personal growth and improving her English speaking. Doing so required her to shift her habits. “I’m drawn to the idea that one always gives to the family and children first and then to oneself, and this program taught me to put myself first,” Maria said.
She also learned to divide her long-term goals into smaller goals that are less intimidating and more achievable in her day-to-day life and to rely more on her family for support. “I have taken several steps, some of them have worked and some of them have not. I have done a lot to create my time and my space,” Maria said. “For my English, I have been practicing more with my little boy and I have been practicing my pronunciation, which is hard…but I’m moving forward.”
Maria Dolores & family
The strong focus on personal goal-setting is the first six-week phase of the Community Organizing and Family Issues, or COFI, learning model used for the leadership program. In the second phase, the parents identify a community-wide goal and work together to achieve it. This helps develop the parents’ advocacy and leadership skills.
Last year, the parent cohort aimed to improve their children’s physical activity, so they created a weekly walking club for families and students to meet and be active together. The next cohort explored the health benefits of reducing children’s consumption of sugary drinks.
At the end of the school year, the parents, wanting to share their newfound knowledge with others, gathered 200 preschool moms on Mexican Mother’s Day in May to present their findings. “It was really cool to see them as leaders and have them present the material to other families, as opposed to school staff or an institution,” Ciara said. “[These lessons] are more impactful coming from a peer.”
Since graduating from the program, several parents have also gone on to sit on the school’s Resident Leadership team, helping with asset mapping and surveying other parents to learn how the school can better support their families’ needs.
For Ciara, who works closely with each cohort, witnessing the parents put their teachings into action has been a rewarding endeavor. “It’s exciting to see their growth and to see how parents really have the opportunity to decide where they want to go from here.”
Brighton Park: Leading in the Classroom and Beyond
Prior to last school year, Luisa Valadez, a seven-year resident of Brighton Park, spent her days as a housewife, caring for her three children and home. Some days when her older children returned from school and asked her how her day was, she became frustrated that she had little to share.
“Sometimes, I felt like I can do nothing. [What am I] here for? What can I do?” said Luisa, reflecting on the past. “And in the night, when the day is done, I didn’t do anything.”
After talking to a friend, Luisa was invited to join a parent-mentorship program that trained parents to work as a teachers’ aides in schools across the neighborhood. Though at first hesitant, Luisa opted to give it a try.
Facilitated by the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council (BPNC), the parent-mentorship program helps local parents prioritize their personal success, develop workplace skills and prepare them to volunteer in the classroom.
“The program helps you to be a little bit professional, with professional discipline. At the same time, you are learning and giving those tools to other parents, working in the school and helping the students,” said Beatriz Merlos, the parent organizer for BPNC.
Once the parents complete the training, they are placed in a classroom for two hours every day, Monday through Thursday. They’re tasked with setting up activities for the students, leading small groups and working one-on-one with students who need additional guidance.
Olga Diane Morales, a grandmother from the neighborhood, has worked at Burroughs Elementary School for three years. She relishes the bonds she’s developed with students, some of whom remember her from her first days in the school.
“My favorite part of being a parent mentor is interacting with the kids, working with them. I’ve learned to have more patience…and I’ve learned to be trusted by the kids,” Olga said. “It feels so good because now I walk around the school and they’re like ‘Oh, Ms. Morales! How are you?”
Unsurprisingly, the program benefits more than the parents. The mentors’ presence creates a better environment for the teachers and students to learn and engage.
“There’s a lot of variables that contribute to student success — or lack of, in some cases — but having parents and teachers in there is huge,” Burroughs Elementary School Principal Richard Morris said.
“Parents and teachers working together is probably the best formula for student success,” he added. “Parents are lesson-planning with teachers, working with small groups of kids, working directly for the academic success of the kids in the classroom.”
Students who are dealing with issues outside the classroom especially benefit from the individualized attention the parent volunteers can provide. In their training and weekly Friday workshops, parents are taught to navigate students’ range of behaviors and personal traumas. “The kids feel less stressed because they’re [able to be] open with that parent with the situations they’re dealing with at school or at home,” Beatriz said.
Like West Chicago’s leadership program, Brighton Park’s program also encourages the parents to prioritize their personal success. It teaches them to plan and execute personal goals, such as adopting a healthier lifestyle, learning English or continuing their education.
Beatriz, who has coordinated the program since its launch in 2012, personally understands how the program can improve the lives of individuals and families by supporting the parents’ interests and success.
“If you could hear me eight years ago, I wasn’t able to speak in English like I am in this moment. I never went to school to learn my English,” Beatriz said. “I learned my English because I put in a lot of effort to learn it. That’s why I’m very consistent to promote these programs because I’m an example of it [working].”
A stay-at-home mother for 17 years, Beatriz was required to look for a job and resources to support her family after a tragedy struck. BPNC’s leadership team began helping Beatriz, a volunteer with the organization, learn how to use computers and speak English. Eventually, they asked her to run the parent-mentorship program.
“I wanted to do something for my people,” Beatriz said. “Not to just be an example, but to be a guide to those parents who are like me and looking for opportunities to learn and make a difference.”
The program Beatriz and BPNC created, with support from United Way, has helped numerous parents, like Luisa and Olga, find opportunities to put their newfound skills and motivation to the test.
A year since her training, Luisa has seen great improvement in herself. The parent leadership program not only raised her self-confidence, it’s motivated her to return to school to earn her GED.
“Mothers like me, we always think that we were made to be home, to clean the house, to make dinner, and do laundry. We don’t know all the things we can do,” Luisa said. “When this program came to my life, everything changed.”
College Mentors Prime Brighton Park Students for Success
At the start of the school year, Jesus Alvarez was “going downhill.” His homework went unfinished most nights, his assignments were marked with Ds and Fs and his behavior was disorderly, as he was causing fights and berating teachers.
For many students who grow up in Jesus’s neighborhood of Brighton Park, these behaviors can be signs of the multi-faceted challenges that they’re facing at home – challenges such as poverty, effects of disinvestment in schools, absent or overworked parents, homelessness, neighborhood violence and the pressure of working to provide for their families.
Now, with the guidance of a college mentor, the sophomore at Kelly High School is on his way to successfully completing 10th grade, a feat that seemed far-fetched just a few months ago.
“Thanks to her help, I improved a lot in all of my classes,” said Jesus of his mentor, Elizabeth Fajardo, a junior at St. Xavier University.
Led by the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, or BPNC, the after-school programs at Kelly High aim to improve graduation rates in the southwest suburban neighborhood that is too often categorized by poverty and low education.
BPNC partnered with United Way of Metro Chicago in 2013 to tackle the community’s generational challenges in a holistic way. It set a goal to raise the high school graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020, a goal that is gradually coming to fruition. Graduation rates have improved nearly 10 percent between 2013 and 2016, when 77.8 percent of Brighton Park seniors graduated.
As the lead agency with the Brighton Park Neighborhood Network, BPNC has invested in academic and enrichment programs at six community schools, including Kelly High. Pairing college mentors with more than 200 underserved students is just one way that they’re able to offer learning, social and emotional support.
Most of the students enrolled in the programs didn’t perform well in 7th and 8th grade or have gotten off track multiple times throughout the school year due to behavioral issues or truancy, said Cheryl Flores, BPNC’s director of Community Schools and Youth Services.
“You have a mentor with you to help ensure you end your freshman year on track,” said Cheryl. “We want to make sure you don’t struggle during freshman year because it’s a make it or break it year.”
“Getting individualized support from a college mentor makes a big difference in a struggling student’s ability to pass all their classes and finish their freshman year on track to graduate,” added Patrick Brosnan, executive director of BPNC.
Some of the programs, like the Leaders of Tomorrow program that addresses tardiness and poor behavior, are specific to the students’ challenges both in and out of school. The mentors assist students with their schoolwork and help to resolve problems with their peers and families. Sometimes, they just strike up a game at the end of the day, to give students a safe space to relax.
Gissel “GiGi” Villenueva, a freshman at Kelly, excessively “ditched” school last year because of bad friends, she said.
“The [mentors] helped me get through all my cuts and helped me bring my grades up. Now all my grades are better — I have Bs and Cs. If you need opportunities to get good grades or anything, you can come down here,” said GiGi of the small BPNC classroom tucked in the basement of Kelly High.
Other programs, like Escalera, prepare juniors and seniors for life after high school.
“We’re typically targeting what would be first-generation college students, not your typical high-achieving junior,” Cheryl said. “Those students are already self-motivated and looking for resources to prepare themselves to get to college. We target students who no one has ever talked to about college, or probably themselves don’t believe that they’re capable of college.”
Freddie Corona has found success through the Escalera program and is currently searching for the school that suits him. Through the program, he has visited three college campuses and learned how to perfect his resume. Freddie hopes to pursue medicine or computer engineering at a local university.
“When I became a junior, I was completely lost, and I joined out of nowhere. It inspired me to motivate myself to keep going,” Freddie said. “It’s kind of like a habit now. I just keep going.”
The team at United Way of Metropolitan Chicago had an idea. They already knew that the people best equipped and most dedicated to creating positive change in their communities were the members of the community themselves. They saw that in Chicago, nonprofit organizations and human service providers were already working to establish affordable and comprehensive health care, safety regulations and engaging educational programs for their residents. But these groups weren’t always working in sync, and were often severely underfunded. United Way thought that that by connecting these partners, leveraging their capabilities to help each other share knowledge and resources, and combining their voices to be heard, these communities could become louder, stronger and more impactful. The Neighborhood Network Initiative was born.
Ten communities comprise the Neighborhood Network. They each have a lead agency–a partner organization in the community that serves as the director for that Neighborhood Network. They also have their own Community Engagement Manager from United Way who connects the work in the communities to United Way. Each Neighborhood Network was chosen “based on both level of need and their capacity to improve lives for their residents with the additional investment, partners and strategies of the Neighborhood Network model.” After connecting agencies and organizations in the community and bringing them to the table, the network chooses a bold goal, a concrete objective they will work to achieve in the coming years. These goals are long term, as is all of the work being done by the Neighborhood Networks–their purpose is to create lasting change by attacking systemic issues with an integrated, focused and community level approach.The neighborhoods are divided into cohorts based on their level of progress in establishing their bold goals, finding partners and establishing organizational permanence. Cohort One, the most developed neighborhoods, is made up of West Chicago and Brighton Park. Cohort Two includes Evanston, Austin and Little Village, and Cohort 3 includes Auburn- Gresham, Bronzeville, South Chicago, Cicero and Robbins/ Blue Island.
Community organizing in the Neighborhood Networks is based on the concept of collective impact. “Collective impact is a proven, effective framework used to bring a range of actors together to solve complex social problems. Unlike partnerships or traditional collaborations, collective impact moves participants to act beyond their self-interest and to act towards a common (community) interest.” There are five basic tenets of collective impact–shared measurement, reinforcing activities that establish a coordinated plan to address an agreed upon problem, a common agenda, continuous communication and a backbone organization. For the Neighborhood Networks, United Way serves as that backbone–providing funding, connecting partners and keeping the networks on track to meet their goals. They also provide a sense of legitimacy to their member agencies, attaching a trusted name to the work they do in order to find more partners and secure additional financial backing.
The purpose of the Neighborhood Network Initiative is to organize and invest in communities that are working to help their residents all fulfill their human potential and increase their quality of life. The role of United Way is not to tell these neighborhoods how to operate or what to do. Rather, they work to keep these networks focused and financed so they can fulfill the needs of their own communities and create lasting change. Check back in with our blog or with the neighborhoods’ home pages to learn more!
Blog submitted by: Elana Ross, Intern, Public Policy and Advocacy