A few years ago, when Jahnice Johnson would play with their son Ja-lijah, she kept noticing he wasn’t speaking new words or making new motions despite being enrolled in speech and physical therapy.
As a young child with a developmental disability, Ja-lijah was entitled to educational and therapeutic services through Early Intervention — a federal program that pairs toddlers with a range of therapists to improve their skills. However, the providers frequently missed visits and Ja-lijah wasn’t progressing.
Then, the services abruptly stopped with little explanation and no accountability. Eventually, Ja-lijah was reapproved for services, but the service provider still failed to show.
“It was sad because he was missing out,” Jahnice said. She greatly feared his learning would regress.
To ensure Ja-lijah got the services he deserves, Jahnice enlisted Legal Council for Health Justice, a United Way of Metro Chicago community partner. Across the city, lawyers at Legal Council provide free legal aid to people living with life-changing health conditions.
Last year, they helped more than 2,000 clients access the necessities of a dignified life: a safe home, an education, a steady income, family security and healthcare.
In Ja-lijah’s case, Sarah Hess, a staff attorney at Legal Council helped The Johnsons reconnect him to therapeutic services. “I want him to have the best and everything he needs,” Jahnice said. “It meant a lot to have her. She was on it. It was amazing.”
Despite some major hurdles and frustrations, today, Ja’lijah, a vibrant three year old, is thriving in a new learning program. Monday through Friday, Ja-lijah attends Head Start, a pre-k program through Chicago Public Schools. He has everything he needs to succeed — a personal teaching aide, therapy, transportation and an extended school year.
“I can tell he’s different, like with his hands and mobile skills,” Jahnice said. “He loves his [toy shopping] cart and putting food in it…When I read books to him, he loves that.”
And while Legal Council and Sarah deserve great praise for their commitment to Ja-lijah’s success, none of it would be possible without Jahnice’s relentless advocacy.
“You can have all the lawyers in the world but if you don’t have an advocate mom like Jahnice, there’s nothing you can do,” Sarah said. “This all happened because she was ready to fight for it.”
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Are you ready to join the fight? The generosity of people like you ensures that every parent and child has access to a quality education and health services. When you support United Way you support a network of community partners who are facing these challenges head on. Our future and the future of thousands of kids will be brighter because of it.
A few days before their Christmas celebrations began, a group of teen girls from Chicago’s Austin neighborhood gathered around a table, sipping hot chocolate and decorating canvases.
The “Paint & Sip” night organized by BUILD, Inc., one of Chicago’s leading gang intervention, violence prevention and youth development organizations, served as a “mixer” to introduce the middle-school girls in its Building Girls 2 Women program before they embarked on their first winter retreat.
The following week, the girls traded the city streets for a rustic, woodland resort 90 miles southwest of their bustling neighborhood. A first for many, the group of 15 girls spent two days at Grizzly Jack’s Grand Bear Resort, where they ice skated, made crafts, built new friendships and engaged in peace circles and fireside chats about identity and self-love.
“The theme for the retreat is ‘This Is Me,’” said Angella Roberts-Smith, an intervention specialist with BUILD and one of the girls’ mentors, prior to their departure. “We want to teach them to be more confident with their identity and to love themselves…and to be respectful of each other’s differences.”
Building Girls 2 Women
Working in a neighborhood that experienced more than 50 homicides last year, Angella and her colleagues facilitate the youth agency’s Building Girls 2 Women program for local middle-school and high-school girls at the highest risk of experiencing trauma and violence.
“When the [Chicago] mayor’s mentoring program came out a couple years ago, it was very specific to boys,” said Jessica Carrillo-Guerrero, BUILD’s director of community wellness and clinical programs and services. “But what we were finding was that more and more incidents of violence were involving girls. It just looked very different than the ways the boys were involved.”
In the first eight months of 2016, 850 girls ages 17 and under were victims of violent crimes in the city, including homicides, aggravated battery and robberies, according to data from the Chicago Police Department.
Leaders of BUILD, located in the Austin neighborhood, also found its own extensive educational and intervention programming was being accessed by many local girls. However, the focus of the programming didn’t specifically address the ways in which girls were impacted by community issues like gang affiliation; physical, emotional and sexual abuse; and financial exploitation.
“We realized that a lot of the reason the girls were acting up was because they had some underlying trauma that they were dealing with. So, we made a hybrid program – Building Girls 2 Women,” Jessica said.
Launched in 2017, the program offers a robust combination of intensive mentoring from BUILD staff and counseling from trained professional therapists, in addition to community building activities, like the retreat and paint and sip night.
Its mission aligns with that of United Way’s Austin Neighborhood Network, a coalition of community stakeholders in the neighborhood. Agencies, like BUILD, are working toward a common agenda to prepare Austin children for lifelong success through the expansion of access to early learning programs and safe community spaces for families.
“We want to create a space for women to feel safe and [be] themselves,” said Olivia Santiago, a Building Girls 2 Women mentor and BUILD community social worker. “We want to show that violence and trauma is not normal, but also teach them how to navigate this place because they can’t leave it.”
Following its first full program year, Building Girls 2 Women is showing great promise. Early results show the first cohort of high-schools girls enrolled in the program have experienced an 82 percent reduction in school suspensions and other major disciplinary actions. All girls involved in the court system have avoided recidivism, and the entire group reported making better decisions.
Creating systems of support
Taking a ‘sisters-only’ approach, Angella and her colleagues not only provide mentorship, they serve as role models who the girls can relate to.
“I was one of them,” Angella said. “I was an outsider and raised by mostly men and hung out with only the boys. I was lost a lot and didn’t have someone to talk to.”
Now, she’s that “someone” for girls maneuvering difficult life situations and a society that often fails to recognize or mitigate the barriers women of color face to living healthy, fulfilling lives.
“On paper, I’m a mentor, but they consider me a big sister,” Angella said.
She and the other mentors also emphasize relationship building, as strong friend and familial supports can help divert girls from unhealthy relationships and behaviors. The retreat, the first of its kind for the middle-school group, was a time for the girls to kindle those bonds.
A few days after returning from their fun-filled trip, a few of the girls reflected on the lessons they’d carry forward.
“I really didn’t realize how important it was to not judge people on how they act because they have other things going on that you may not know about,” said Alexa Hunt, a 13-year-old program participant who lives in the Englewood community. “Also, I learned that it’s pretty cool to talk to new people.”
Her comrade, Janaia Lewis, a 13-year-old who goes to school in East Garfield Park, also learned many of her peers face similar challenges as her and pledged to be less judgmental of them and herself.
“The most important thing I learned is that every situation you through, you don’t have to go through alone,” Janaia said. “[There are] people that have been in your shoes before and it’s okay to talk to them to help you deal with different situations and emotions.”
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.”
It Takes a Village: One Center Helps Entire Families Thrive
When her daughter Pearl was seven-months-old, Shyera Gaston set out on a search for a daycare service in her neighborhood. Shyera had recently decided to continue her education to support her growing family.
Hoping to heal others with her hands, Shyera, who was 22 at the time, excitedly enrolled in school to study massage therapy. Establishing her career was a high priority for Shyera, but finding a safe, reliable caretaker to watch Pearl was top of mind.
After striking out with local babysitters, Shyera found an opening at the Carole Robertson Center for Learning’s North Lawndale site, an educational center serving children ages 0 to 15 and their families.
Though Shyera simply sought daycare services, she ultimately found a range of critical supports to help her navigate other life challenges. In hindsight, Shyera said the foundation the Center created for her family enabled her to be a stronger parent for Pearl and, eventually, her son LeTroy.
“[The center] has given me a sense of security in my life. When I felt like I didn’t have anybody else to keep my kids, I was able to bring them here,” Shyera said. “I’ve been able to talk to people when I need to. But ultimately, it’s been the fact that I’ve been able to trust them, which allows me to do what I need to do as a single mom.”
Open year round, the Carole Robertson Center for Learning, a United Way community partner, provides center-based and home-based early childhood programs, school-age programming for youth and extensive support services to hundreds of families on the West Side of Chicago. They serve both English and Spanish-speaking families, as well as children with special needs.
Situated in large building with classrooms, a library and computer lab, the learning center functions much like a traditional school. On any given day, students can be found singing in music class, reading books in a huddle with their teachers or riding tricycles in their play room.
Shyera said the center greatly prepared Pearl, who is now 5, for kindergarten and instilled in her a love of learning. LeTroy, 3, has also seen strong growth in his time at Carole Robertson Center for Learning, Shyera said. “He talks a lot more, he speaks Spanish and he’s very polite,” she proudly shared. “He just has a really bright personality, and this program has helped him with that because they’re very interactive with him.”
In addition to preparing youth for academics, the Carole Robertson Center for Learning establishes a strong foundation for the entire family by pairing parents with family support specialists to help them create goals and plans to achieve them. The support specialists assist with families’ ongoing challenges, like accessing employment opportunities, mental health services and parental development workshops.
“We address the entire family’s needs. If the family is doing well, the child will do well, too,” said Sonia Perez Gandara, the center’s resource development, grant and publications specialist.
Families who are struggling or who live in underserved communities typically don’t deal with a singular issue. By only meeting one need, rather than addressing the multitude of contributing factors, it’s difficult for a family to reach their full potential. If a child has access to quality school programming, but their parent doesn’t have a job to provide for their basic needs, they’re not set up for success. It takes a network of community supports and services to wrap around the family and assist them on a variety of levels.
At United Way of Metro Chicago, we partner with agencies like the Carole Robertson Center for Learning to not only prepare individuals for success, but to serve the entire household.
That was the case for Shyera. Her children’s enrollment in the program has provided her with the foundation for her career to flourish, while also providing her care to address the interpersonal violence in her home.
“Honestly, I was going through a very hard time [when I started bringing my daughter here.] I was dealing with domestic violence. And I felt like I needed to talk to somebody, but not somebody that is biased about the situation,” Shyera shared.
“I ended up talking to a counselor here for awhile. It reassured me that I’d be okay and that I’m a very strong,” Shyera added. “When I was talking to her, she was telling me that I’m strong and a very bright person and that I’m going to overcome that battle.”
With her children settled at the learning center and her emotional health being cared for, Shyera’s career was able to flourish. Since Pearl first arrived at the center, Shyera’s finished her studies, earned her massage license and secured a position working as a massage therapist.
“If I didn’t have the center in my life, I wouldn’t be able to be the massage therapist that I am today. Without the help of the center I wouldn’t have been able to move forward,” Shyera said. “I can just freely be the mom that I need to be.”
Building Blocks: Youth Learn Life Skills with Legos
“Mr. G — I figured it out!” Courey Harris shouted, as a small car built from Legos and other mechanical parts sped along a large table scattered with colorful block structures.
Courey, a 7th grader at Charles P. Caldwell Middle School, is one of about 15 students who meet twice a week after school to build and program robots in the computer lab of Gary Comer Youth Center, a United Way community partner in Greater Grand Crossing. There, the group of fifth through eighth graders from the South Side Chicago neighborhood learn the building blocks of academic success — critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
On that Monday afternoon, Courey was determined to program his robot car to drive forward and lift its arm attachment. Using a desktop computer program, he created a sequence of motions to download to the robot’s computer.
Mr. Alex Guzinski, technology coordinator at Gary Comer Youth Center, gives instructions to Courey Harris to program his car.
Upon further inspection of Courey’s car, Mr. Alex Guzinski, the center’s technology coordinator, sent him back to the drawing board to tweak his programming. “You’re so close!” Mr. Guzinski said, encouraging Courey.
Robotics Club and Classes Teach Students Critical Skills
Upon arriving at the youth center after school, the students enjoy a snack and then shuffle upstairs to Mr. Guzinski’s basic robotics class, where they work on a range of projects, from robot building and coding to 3-D printing.
Students especially interested in the program stay after class for Mr.Guzinski’s robotics club. Together, the teammates use a robotics kit of Legos, wires, motors and sensors to design, build and program a robot to compete in local and statewide competitions. The team’s robot must accomplish tasks on a mission map, a large table with structures made from Legos and other parts. To make that happen, the students program the robot to drive, lift, turn, spin and more.
“They’re getting a real boost in practicing problem solving,” Mr. Guzinski said of the skills students acquire in his robotics classes and club. “Something new students struggle with a lot is knowing how to go about solving a problem. Something will go wrong, and they’ll be like, ‘It’s broken. There’s nothing I can do.”
“A lot of what the students have to do is constantly figure out why this isn’t working,” he added. “‘What do we have to do? What do we have to change? What are the ways I have to think about solving this problem?’”
Ajani Clanton researched other designs to get inspiration for his team’s robot.
Last year, when the Gary Comer Youth Center team put their robot to the test, they made it to the state championships. The team, evenly made up of new and returning students, hopes to take home a win again at this year’s qualifying tournament in December.
In addition to demonstrating their robot, the students will also present a research project about space and accomplish an activity that will require them to show off several core skills, like innovation, inclusion and teamwork.
Though they were at first reserved about sharing their newfound knowledge, the students are enthusiastic about the opportunity to build robots together and compete.
“I really like the fact that I get to build things. I don’t really use the computer at home because it’s old,” said Ajani Clanton, an 8th grader from Gary Comer Middle School, of having access to resources in the computer lab. He’s always taken an interest in engineering, as he looks up to his mom, a bridge inspector.
“You get to meet new people, and it’s fun to work together to create something new,” added Ja’mari Redwood, a 7th grader from Avalon Park Fine & Performing Arts School.
Youth Center Activities Launch Students Into the Future
Opened in 2006, Gary Comer Youth Center stands as a pillar in the South Side Chicago communities of Auburn Gresham, Greater Grand Crossing and South Shore. Nearly 450 students from local middle and high schools participate in classes after school every day until 6 p.m.
Ja’mari Redwood picks Lego blocks to create an “Alpha Rex” robot during the after-school robotics class.
Activities ranging from culinary and visual arts to civics classes and sports programs expose youth to a range of new skills and opportunities, while providing a safe space for students to congregate until their parents finish the work day.
Like Gary Comer Youth Center, we at United Way prioritize local students’ academic success. We believe every young person in every neighborhood should have access to high-quality middle school programs and after-school enrichment opportunities. By helping children build a strong foundation in education, we can ensure that kids have the skills to be successful in school and in life.
For Mr. Guzinski’s students, the lessons taught in robotics club aim to do just that. Their lessons in teamwork and problem-solving can be utilized in the students’ everyday lives and will serve as a springboard for their future success in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.
“[The program] gives them an inside look and head start into actual STEM-based careers,” Mr. Guzinski said. “They’re doing a lot of engineering and coding, but also a lot of research. And they’re following the engineering process, which can be applicable to other kinds of fields, as well.”
Students work to build their robot during the robotics club’s Monday meeting.
Nathan Randall, a 9th grader from Gary Comer College Prep, is a shining example.
Mr. Guzinski’s mentorship in the robotics program is preparing Nathan for his future career in video-game design, while providing him with a fun environment to learn.
“I really like the atmosphere here. Even though we act silly, we get work done,” Nathan said.
In 7th grade, Nathan joined Mr. Guzinski’s basic robotics class. Now, he’s returned to design a fantasy video game and help the younger students, like Courey.
While Nathan plugged away at his coding his game, Courey, still determined to make his robot move forward and lift its arm, sat across the room brainstorming how to correct his robot’s programming.
“Why is it turning?” he groaned loudly after another failed attempt. “I gotta figure it out!”
On his sixth try, he returned to the mission table with a grin. “Look! I did it, Mr. G. Look!” he exclaimed as the robot’s wheels squealed forward and its arm raised.
The academic and career trajectory of young adults growing up in the Chicago region often hinges on the support systems they can rely on. Some are born into strong, supportive networks of family and friends, while others must cultivate their own, creating bonds that enhance their life journey.
So was the case for Jessica, a student from North Lawndale.
High school was a troubling time for Jessica, as she often had conflict with her peers and struggled academically. Those challenges left her feeling like she wasn’t cut out for high school and that graduation, inevitably, wasn’t in the cards. That’s until she was connected to the Stay In School Initiative through the youth agency Young Men’s Education Network (YMEN).
The Stay In School Initiative – a partnership between United Way of Metro Chicago, Exelon and ComEd – works with six community agencies and their partner high schools to offer a holistic range of programs and services to students and their families. The programs include tutoring, social service referrals, leadership and social engagement training, and parent involvement classes. The heart of the program is a mentoring component, in which hundreds of Exelon and ComEd employees partner with students to offer academic support and guidance, as well as to host monthly workshop series for skill-building.
Having the opportunity to meet professionals who can provide career and social guidance is invaluable for the students. The mentor-mentee relationship can inspire youth to consider their career paths at an early age and provide them with the skill set and goals needed to achieve their dreams.
For September McDonald, an SIS student and United Way of Metro Chicago summer intern, the program also enabled to her learn more about herself and her place in the world.
“[The Stay In School program] opened my eyes to another world,” September said. “It’s making me an even more well-rounded person…someone who is also culturally, socially and politically aware of what’s going on in my surroundings.”
Closing an education gap
When the SIS program began seven years ago, United Way, with the help of our corporate partners, aimed to address a gap in youth education and resolve chronic truancy and high dropout rates. Since, the program has had a positive impact on thousands of students, including more than 1,800 youth who participated during the 2017-18 school year.
Of the 536 students who most actively participated in SIS this past year , nearly 85 percent achieved satisfactory school attendance, and more than 88 percent of students achieved satisfactory grade performance. In addition, all of the 2018 Stay In School seniors graduated from high school.
Jessica was among them. Her participation in SIS allowed her to write a different life story than the one that was unfolding. Her SIS mentors and the staff of YMEN helped Jessica make a much-needed transition to a new high school that partners with the youth agency to offer additional life supports.
There, she was able to overcome the challenges present at her previous school. She also developed leadership skills that she quickly put to the test by assembling and leading a dance team at her new school. “Her grades dramatically improved this year from C-D level grades at Wells School to getting As and Bs here [during] senior year,” said Will Chatman, program manager of YMEN.
Most importantly, her newfound success enabled her to graduate in June. Now, she’s headed off to City Colleges of Chicago to continue her education. “In grades, school attendance, and school leadership, Jessica was a fantastic example of the impact created with the additional support and engagement through the United Way, Exelon, ComEd and YMEN collaboration,” YMEN leaders shared.
With a new school year underway, a new cohort of students will soon follow in Jessica’s footsteps. Though their path is their own to forge, the mentorship provided through the Stay In School Initiative will equip the students with the skills and confidence needed to thrive, and that will make all the difference.
In the winter months of 2016, Claudia Gonzalez*, a mother of three living in Brighton Park, unexpectedly lost her job. Though she aggressively searched for alternative employment, she couldn’t keep up with rent payments for her apartment.
The sole provider for her family, Claudia needed some outside support to keep a roof over the heads of her two sons and daughter, who were all enrolled at a local elementary school. Stable housing is a necessity for all individuals, but especially for students who require a strong foundation to learn and succeed.
That’s why the staff of their school referred Claudia and the family to Brighton Park Neighborhood Council’s Success and Stability Program. Funded by the Siemer Institute, an organization that oversees a network of programs intended to stabilize families, the Success and Stability Program provides wrap-around services to families’ experiencing housing insecurity.
Participating families have a school-aged child and are homeless, at-risk of being homeless or living in an unstable living environment, such as couch surfing or living with multiple families in one home. Families with parents who are undocumented or formerly incarcerated, as well as those displaced from other countries or U.S. territories, especially benefit from the program, as they face even greater barriers to obtaining housing and employment.
A nationwide organization, Siemer Institute solely partners with local United Ways, who, in turn, facilitate the Success and Stability Program in communities of greatest need. In the Chicago region, United Way partner agencies in Brighton Park, Auburn Gresham and West Chicago host the program.
Stationed in local schools, the Success and Stability case managers are assigned dozens of families, like Claudia’s, to help the parents address the root causes of their challenges, craft goals to address those challenges and execute those goals. “By strengthening the household, you empower the parents so that the children are cared for and can thrive,” said Kimberly Richards, a program case manager from Auburn Gresham. Some common goals that parents make include avoiding eviction, finding affordable housing or saving for a home.
Caseworkers approach this work with the intention of creating a healthier environment for the students to learn and achieve. “You can’t do homework when the lights turn out in the shelter. When you know your parents are worried about paying rent, you can’t focus on school,” said Jenny Hansen, United Way of Metro Chicago’s senior manager of Safety Net and Basic Needs. “If you’re hungry, tired or stressed because of eviction, you can’t learn. If we want kids to be successful in school, we need to stabilize the family.”
In addition, case managers also provide referrals to other social service programs to resolve families’ outstanding needs, like unemployment, gas and electric assistance, counseling services and student-learning programs. “We focus on bettering the person themselves,” said Hilda Martinez, a case manager in Brighton Park. “We’re not focusing on just the financial aspects but trying to make them a better person as a whole – each individual in the family, as opposed to just the parent or the child.”
Claudia’s enrollment in Brighton Park’s program did just that. After enrolling in the Success and Stability Program, she set three goals – to find employment, not to be evicted and to become more involved in her children’s interests.
With the assistance of her case manager, Claudia was able to speak with her landlord and discuss her situation to avoid eviction while looking for a job. Her case manager also referred her to agencies where she received rental assistance to pay her overdue rent and utility bills.
A few weeks later, Claudia was connected to an employment opportunity that fit her children’s school schedule and allowed her to cover her rent, avoiding eviction.
At the time, her children were struggling with the separation of their parents and their unstable living conditions, so their case manager connected them to counseling services. They were also able to enroll in after-school activities in the Brighton Park neighborhood, giving them access to new opportunities and support systems.
In August 2016, after six months of hard work, Claudia successfully completed the program. While she achieved her goals and her situation was stabilized, she also managed to go above and beyond her initial objectives. Claudia opened her first savings account and, later, was able to purchase a car, a feat that will make other resources and activities more accessible to the family.
Most importantly, at the end of the school year, the children’s grades and behavior in class drastically improved. With dedicated support from her case manager and a strong commitment to bettering the lives of her children, Claudia and her family left the Success and Stability Program better prepared for the days ahead.
*While all stories are true, names and/or images may have been changed to protect an individual’s privacy.
South Chicago Students Splurge at Back-To-School Shopping Spree
For many families in the Chicago region, the annual ritual of back-to-school shopping can put their wallets in a pinch. The cost of school supplies, clothing and backpacks adds up quickly, especially for families with multiple children.
To ease the financial burden and prepare students for their first day, United Way of Metro Chicago teamed up with Target to offer $100 shopping sprees to hundreds of local students in the weeks leading up to their return to school.
On a sunny August morning, nearly 100 elementary through high school students from the South Chicago neighborhood excitedly arrived at Target aboard two yellow school buses, where they were greeted and presented with gift cards for their shopping. For three hours, the energetic students scoured the aisles of the megastore, selecting a colorful array of backpacks, lunch-boxes, clothing and supplies.
“This is what our community needs. We need organizations that actually care for our students and are willing to provide options that we don’t have and to give us a financial lift. This helps a lot,” said Brian Sayles, of the shopping spree. Brian is the father of Averi and Bryce, two students at Amelia Earhart Chicago Public Elementary School.
“It’s been great, and I really like the fact that they provided school buses for people who didn’t have another option. We appreciate that a lot,” he added as the family stood in the checkout line assessing their haul, which included pencils, poster-board, paper, socks and more.
Larry Clark, the father of Mariah and Jeremiah, a 2nd grader and 3rd grader from Amelia Earhart Elementary School, shared similar sentiments. “It’s been wonderful. I think the families will benefit greatly,” he said, pushing a cart full of highlighters, notebooks, backpacks and pencils. “It’s that time of the year when you get all the school supplies. It’s a wonderful opportunity to get them ready for the first day of school.”
Other families attending the spree used their gift cards to buy required school uniforms, which can often be a costly purchase at a time when additional supplies are needed. “I think it’s a wonderful cause. It helps out a lot. I appreciate it, I really do,” said Sheila Ramsay, the grandmother of Ryleigh Hull, a student at Thomas Hoyne Fine Arts Elementary School. Ryleigh was eager to glitz up her uniform with her new pastel, glittery socks on her first day of second grade.
The South Chicago Neighborhood Network was instrumental in connecting students to the shopping experience. This coalition of community partners is a part of United Way’s region-wide strategic plan to address neighborhood challenges through focused collaboration between community stakeholders.
“[This spree] gets kids excited for going back to school and helps the parents not have to worry about all the added expenses, especially if they have multiple kids. In communities like South Chicago, having that extra help is needed,” said Tevonne Ellis, coordinator of the South Chicago Neighborhood Network.
Target’s team of employees were enthusiastic to host the spree and give back to their neighbors. “I think my team members are the most excited. We don’t usually see this many people here this early in the morning, “said Lindsay Foster, the store’s executive team leader of human resources, with a laugh. “It’s exciting, especially right before back to school. The kids come in and they’re ready to shop. They’re buying their backpacks. We just know they’re going to have a great first day of school.”
The South Chicago kids aren’t the only ones headed back to school in style. Throughout the month, hundreds of students residing in the nine other United Way Neighborhood Network communities also attended back-to-school shopping sprees at their local Target stores.
United Way of Metro Chicago would like to thank Target for its generosity in helping prepare these students to return to school, as well as the Neighborhood Network leaders in Austin, Auburn Gresham, Blue Island-Robbins, Evanston, South Chicago, West Chicago, Little Village, Bronzeville, Cicero and Brighton Park that connected the students to the sprees! Because of them, these kids will start their school year on the right foot.
Huddled over a lush garden bed on a humid July afternoon, Emma Mosco-Flint dusted off a bunch of disfigured carrots before moving on to a bed of tall, ripe chives.
While her peers washed squash and chard in a patio sink, the 15-year-old hip-hop dancer and soon-to-be sophomore harvested the urban vegetable garden behind Youth & Opportunity United’s headquarters west of downtown Evanston. A participant of their Food, Farming and Future program, or F3, Emma values the opportunity to learn how to manage a garden and share the organic produce with her community.
“I really like learning what’s in my food. As a dancer, I care about what I’m putting in my body and where it’s coming from,” Emma said.
Youth & Opportunity United (Y.O.U.), an Evanston youth development agency that offers year-round social and emotional learning programs to 1,600 young people and their families, hosts a
Jeremiah Dixon and Amir Woodfork wash bowls while making Elote at Y.O.U’s in-house kitchen.
range of additional summer programs intended to expand local students’ horizons and prepare them for post-secondary and lifelong success.
“That’s really the point of our programming – to really expand your vision of what you can be,” Maggie Blinn DiNovi, CEO of Y.O.U., said about the impact the organization strives to make on Evanston students, especially those enrolled at Evanston Township High School (ETHS).
Y.O.U.’s mission reflects the work of the Evanston Neighborhood Network, a coalition of community partners who have joined forces with United Way of Metro Chicago to improve racial and ethnic parity for African American and Latinx students. Broadly, Y.O.U. and other Network partners aim to prepare all young adults to lead happy, healthy, productive and satisfying lives.
“It’s a well-resourced school, but there’s an achievement gap. We’re addressing the opportunity gap between high-income and low-income students,” said Maggie, of ETHS. “It’s not about competing with [the school]. It’s about what else do students need? This is a place that kids are comfortable, and they’ve developed relationships that help them really realize their fullest potential.”
Kevin Hona listens to music with his peers Dez Foreman and Soleil Anderson in Y.O.U’s “maker space” studio.
While they offer a plethora of services and programming for students of all ages, Y.O.U. held five programs geared toward high-school aged youth this year. Another program, PEER, is designed to ease incoming freshman into their tenure at ETHS, located across the street. Throughout the 8-week program, Y.O.U. leaders take the students on informative tours of their new school, partner them with older mentors and facilitate career explorations, like inviting professionals to speak about their industries and careers. They also host culinary lessons with an in-house chef and provide seminars on healthy relationships.
Kevin Hona, 15, jumped on the opportunity to serve as a peer mentor for students enrolled in the program. When he isn’t teaching others the ropes, he utilizes the Y.O.U.’s new “maker space” to write poetry and make music. The incoming sophomore raves about the new styles of music he’s been pursuing since gaining access to the creative space, which houses computers with audio workstations, a 3D printer, iPads and, soon, a recording booth.
AnneGrace Bambi and Kaitlyn Henry work on projects in Y.O.U.’s “maker space” studio.
“It’s where I got introduced to a whole new different style of poetry,” Kevin said. “I’ve always love poetry, but this space brought that out. I was kind of shy about it honestly. This is what we call a safe space where I can do how I feel and it’s very fun exploring new things in a new environment.”
Like Kevin, Y.O.U. has helped AnneGrace Bambi, 14, explore new avenues, too. Her mentors at Y.O.U., including Em Roth, Y.O.U.’s director of high school OST programs, and Janelle Norman, manager of post-secondary success, have helped her discover her future career path. She dreams of attending Ohio State University to become an OBGYN.
In addition to guidance, AnneGrace appreciates the comfort and friendships she’s found at Y.O.U.
“Everyone knows each other, and we try to encourage one another,” she said. “I like the community we’ve built here.”
Only 29 percent of jobs in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) fields are currently held by people of color. It’s not a lack of interest in these fields that prevent minority students from entering the workforce, but rather a lack of access and awareness.
But that’s changing for youth in the communities of Austin and Little Village, two United Way Neighborhood Networks.
Students in these communities are learning the fundamentals of coding thanks to Apple’s Everyone Can Code (ECC) program. ECC teaches Swift, an easy-to-learn programming language, through gamification, making it accessible for everyone. The program has a strong focus on coding in the classroom and curriculum for teachers, with the Chicago initiative focusing on students within Chicago Public Schools and City Colleges.
However, with a shortage of computer science teachers, particularly in underserved communities, and an increasing demand for a strong and diverse population of coders, Apple’s curriculum is flexible enough to be used across other platforms.
A collaborative network exists to help launch and implement coding camps in the neighborhoods of Austin and Little Village. The City of Chicago, JPMorgan Chase, Department of Family and Supportive Services, Chicago Public Schools, Thrive, Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses, United Way and Apple have joined forces and expertise to support this effort. With Austin’s focus on addressing workforce needs and Little Village’s efforts to increase STEM activities in after-school programs, these two Neighborhood Networks were the perfect place to start.
“United Way’s hope is to see coding programs in the elementary, middle and high schools in all 10 Neighborhood Networks, developing a pipeline that can lead directly to internships with corporate partners and ultimately jobs in tech or the creative space,” said Jaime Arteaga, Manager of Community Engagement at United Way of Metro Chicago.
The goals of ECC are to help people learn new skills, open doors to additional opportunities and serve as a conduit for solving community-wide problems. And it’s doing just that. “The future of work is constantly adjusting and United Way plays a critical role in connecting our funded agency partners to promising practices and the required partnerships that facilitate success and competitiveness in various arenas,” says Ayom Siengo, Senior Manager of Financial Capability at United Way of Metro Chicago. “From IT and code to other 21st century practices, we are interested in being a conduit of technical assistance resources and support for residents throughout the metro region.”
The coding camps culminated in an app showcase at end of May where top students got to display the apps they created. One student created an app that would connect friends who wanted to play a game of pickup basketball by helping to locate open parks and allow them to reserve a court. Another student developed an app for single parents so that his mother, a single mom, would be able to access resources and find support from other single parents in their community.
While these are solving tangible needs in the communities, it’s not just about the short term results.
“There is a lot of interest in programming and apps in our community,” said Omar Magana, Executive Director of Open Center for the Arts, one of the community partners hosting the coding camps. “The parents are excited to know there is more opportunities in the community that better prepare their children.”
United Way is currently helping the students who finished the program connect to internships across the Chicago region through the City of Chicago’s One Summer Chicago program. The apps created through the coding camp are being used as a demonstration project to aid students as they apply for placements, demonstrating to local businesses that their skills are valid for employment. At the same time, the students are filling the businesses’ need for young, talented individuals who represent the diversity of Chicago and who love coding and technology.
“From large to small organizations across the region, corporate partners are actively looking for increasingly meaningful opportunities to connect their HR needs to proven approaches, and this is one of them,” says Ayom.
“United Way is perfectly situated to connect community partners’ needs with those of our corporate partners, creating a mutually beneficial relationship that goes beyond charity,” Jaime adds, “There is a need for youth to connect outside their communities and this opportunity is providing them connections that can lead them to long term employment.”
The skills and the baseline information students gain through coding will benefit them, regardless of what their future careers may be. These include skills like creativity, collaboration, and logistical and computational thinking.
While it is a goal to see Chicago continue to grow as a tech hub, Apple also recognizes that diversity of thought – which comes from diverse experiences, backgrounds and cultures – is what can really create lasting change across the region and beyond.
A shared goal of Apple, United Way and the community partners is to empower students with the transferable and relevant skills they need for whatever career path they decide to take.
Omar sees a lot of excitement and confidence in the students participating in his coding camp. “It’s a great benefit to know there are option like this in our community,” he adds.