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.
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.”
United Way Corporate Partners Give Back in Big Ways
It’s no secret that we have great partners at United Way of Metro Chicago. We’re able to join forces with some of the best, brightest and most benevolent business leaders across the region in our fight for stronger communities. While there are endless ways that our corporate partners invest in the neighborhoods we serve, we wanted to highlight a few that are making significant strides toward improving outcomes.
BMO Harris Bank Investing in communities and helping others is in the DNA of BMO Harris Bank, as reflected by their slogan “We’re here to help.” As a longstanding partner of United Way, BMO has gone above and beyond to contribute to thriving communities across the Chicago region. In 2013, BMO Harris Bank’s cornerstone investment was crucial to the launch of the Neighborhood Network Initiative. Since then, they have continued to support this community-based work, committing a total investment of $3 million over 8 years, which has enabled the expansion of our work within the 10 neighborhoods we serve.
Wells Fargo Wells Fargo has been a champion of communities in need and a dedicated partner of United Way for years. In 2016, they decided to focus their efforts to strategically invest in bringing critical resources to one neighborhood. Their three-year financial commitment to the Austin Neighborhood Network has helped improve families’ access to quality early-childhood learning opportunities and job skills development and referral programs within the neighborhood. This focused approach is also reflected in their volunteerism, with Wells Fargo team members spending the majority of their volunteer hours in the Austin community.
Target Our partners at Target have fully “bought in” to the work of United Way. One of their greatest areas of impact has been the $100,000 back-to-school shopping sprees. This annual event provides 100 students in each of our 10 Neighborhood Networks with a $100 gift card to spend on supplies they need for the new school year. United Way works with the lead agency in each Neighborhood Network to identify the students with the greatest need, then Target organizes a shopping spree complete with healthy foods and drinks, free transportation, and a fun-filled day for the entire family. Local politicians, school leaders and agency partners all came out for last year’s shopping spree, truly making this a community-wide event.
Exelon A leading advocate of our work in education, Exelon partnered with United Way of Metro Chicago to create the Stay in School Initiative (SIS). This program selects students in 9th – 12th grade from some of the most underserved communities in our region and provides them with the tools and mentorship they need to make it to high school graduation and prepare for college or a career. A key element of the Stay in School Initiative is the Saturday mentoring workshops, which are lead by Exelon employees and help students learn basic skills such as resume writing, business basics, keys to networking and the dos and don’ts of interviewing. Since 2005, the Stay in School Initiative has served an average of 2,250 students per year.
UPS UPS employees don’t stop at financial and time contributions – they are true hand-raisers who are quick to address immediate community needs. They have taken their role in the community a step further by connecting individuals in need of jobs to open positions within their eight regional facilities. Working directly with United Way of Metro Chicago’s Career Pathways funded agencies, UPS’s HR team has placed pre-screened candidates in open roles with a 100% success rate.
These are just a few of the ways our corporate partners are making an impact. There are countless others who are dedicated to the work of United Way and our agency partners and are instrumental in the work we do. If your organization is interested in partnering with United Way, contact Katie Jozwik at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Tuesday, members of our United Way of Metro Chicago’s Tocqueville Society were invited to a breakfast with Deputy Mayor Andrea Zopp to discuss the challenges and assets in Chicago’s neighborhoods. “The single biggest challenge facing our neighborhoods is gun violence,” Deputy Mayor Zopp said. “We have to interrupt the violence and deal with it.”
When discussing United Way of Metro Chicago’s Neighborhood Network Initiative, Deputy Mayor Zopp noted that we are on the right track. “The only way to create sustainable change in our city is to go deep into neighborhoods, working with residents and community organizations, the way United Way is doing.”
Neighborhoods like the ones we work in every day—Austin, Auburn Gresham, Bronzeville, Brighton Park, Cicero, Evanston, Little Village, Robbins/Blue Island, South Chicago and West Chicago—have strong community-based organizations doing tremendous work. In addition, they have growing groups of engaged citizens that are committed to lasting change.
“If you can provide stability in a neighborhood they will come through and thrive on their own,” the deputy mayor said. “The work in neighborhoods allows people to have their own stake in changing the place they live.”
To tackle these challenges, Deputy Mayor Zopp encourages residents across the region to recognize the vibrancy in our most challenged neighborhoods and be willing to work together. “Being optimistic and focused can be hard work. We have to stay focused on the good things,” she said. “Dealing with gun violence is hard. Inequity is a hard issue. That doesn’t mean we can’t come together and work on it.”
She went even further to call on corporate and civic leaders to take action, too. “If we have significant areas in the city that are not thriving it impacts all of us—we pay for it in a variety of ways. It is worth it for all of us to think about how we invest in those areas.”