Evanston Agency Makes Residents Feel at Home

As the rest of the region came to a halt during February’s Polar Vortex, the team at Connections for the Homeless in Evanston worked on overdrive. For more than 72 hours, staff members, volunteers and program participants went above and beyond to ensure their neighbors were safe and warm.

Staff and volunteers coordinated shuttles between shelters and soup kitchens, participants dropped off food, and one dedicated volunteer drove a participant from Evanston all the way to Chicago’s South Side to pick up his paycheck.

Whether it’s 80 degrees or -32 degrees, Connections is dedicated to ending homelessness through its three program pillars — homelessness prevention, shelter services and housing programs.

“Connections is a place where anyone can come if they need help,” said Jen Feuer-Crystal, director of Connections’ housing programs. “We work to serve our community and be recognized as a place where everybody is welcome.”

Tackling the root causes of homelessness

Evanstonians seeking immediate help can meet their most basic needs at Connections’ overnight shelter and drop-in center. Anyone in need of services can visit with a nurse or therapist, take a shower, access the food pantry, pick out clothing and have a safe place to store their belongings. Case management services are also available to access housing supports, employment assistance, public benefits and educational opportunities.

Once individuals and families are connected, Connections helps ensure their long-term success through its transitional and supportive housing programs. They help people move from homelessness to housing as quickly as possible, placing families in homes and providing robust case management. 

For those who aren’t homeless but are at risk of eviction, Connections provides financial support and case management to ensure the entire household can stay in its home and avoid the costs and trauma of homelessness. 

In addition to direct support, Connections works change the landscape that causes homelessness. In a city whose median monthly rent increased by 2.3% since last year, Connections fiercely advocates for investments in affordable housing. It also seeks to create strong relationships with other service providers so that participants’ outstanding needs are met. As the convener of the Evanston Neighborhood Network, a coalition of community stakeholders, United Way of Metro Chicago helps Connections bridge these relationships and coordinate care. 

More than a service provider, Connections is a family

Last year, Connections prevented 224 families from losing their homes because of eviction. And though Connections’ impact can be explained in numbers, the true testaments of its work are the bonds its staff has created with individuals and families.

“Staffing here is very unique. Everybody from the CEO to volunteers understands [the problems people face]. They just get it,” said Bessie Simmons, a family housing support case manager who previously experienced housing insecurity. “We’re like one. I haven’t seen a place like this yet.”

Jen agreed, adding, “The case managers work really hard to do their best for families. We don’t think of participants as less than. They have so many strengths and are such an addition to the community.”

In her time with Connections, Patricia, a resilient, resourceful mother, has become a part of this unconventional family.

Four years ago, while living in a temporary women’s shelter with her children, Patricia sought help to leave the stressful situation. With Connections’ assistance, Patricia enrolled in their permanent supportive housing program. Through the program, she’s gained access to other supports for herself and her kids, including tutoring and daycare programs.

Today, the family lives in a two-story flat, and Patricia works as a certified nursing assistant. She also helps build the community that raised her up. She rallies support for affordable housing in Evanston and never misses “family night” events. 

“I love [the Connections team],” Patricia said. “It’s always felt like a family. At first, I wasn’t so sure, but, now, I know I can go to them with anything.”


International Women’s Day 2019

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!

Toni Peterson
Tina Sayadi
Marilyn Jackson
Beatriz Merlos
Cheryl Francis
Itedal Shalabi and Nareman Taha

Pre-K Students Craft Healthy Behaviors Through Arts Education

When Jan Ellenstein teaches Evanston youth to paint ocean scenes with acrylics or draw cityscapes with pastels, she isn’t hoping for masterpieces. She’s hoping the young learners will acquire the confidence to see themselves as artists, no matter their skill level.

Jan, the lead children and youth facilitator at Open Studio Project (OSP), works with a dedicated team at the arts and social service organization to help prepare pre-K students for kindergarten. Using a newly-developed curriculum that incorporates arts activities, like painting and clay molding, with skill-building lessons, OSP hosts and travels to different pre-K education centers in Evanston to lead art classes. These sessions help students unleash their creativity and develop the social and emotional skills needed to be successful in school and beyond.

“The activities provide emotional tools to build positive relationships and help people appreciate differences and develop empathy,” said Chantal Healey, executive director of OSP. “We’re teaching our kids that kindness, empathy and extending a hand to those in-need really helps us become a stronger society and helps the world become a better place.”

More than an art class, students learn life skills

On a sunny Friday in February, a dozen students from The Learning Bridge Early Education Center huddled around paint-splattered sheets in the center’s carriage house to paint ocean scenes alongside Jan and her team of artists.

Before slathering turquoise, indigo and yellow paint on their white canvases — and all over their hands and arms — the group of 4- and 5-year-olds had a lively discussion about sea animals and their habitats.

Sitting in a circle with the kids, Jan scribbled an obscure fish on her paper, then asked the group if it was good enough to use for her project.

“It can be an imaginary fish. Because we all see things differently,” interjected Ned, a blonde student with lime-green hair dye on the tips of his curly locks.

“Yes! You’ve been listening!” Jan exclaimed.

For 12 weeks, OSP’s team will visit Learning Bridge to host two art classes that teach the students such lessons. The classes are a creative journey that combines social and emotional skill-building with art in a process that values self-expression over technique and abandons critiquing the students’ work.

For 45-minutes each week, the students create projects that explore machines, mammals, their bodies, the solar system and more. The projects incorporate each of the five attributes of social-emotional learning — self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision-making and relationship skills.

“In schools, the work is very skills-based, but here, it’s very process-based. There’s a lot of freedom within the structure. It’s not really about the product. It’s about the experience of doing the art and enjoying it,” Jan said of OSP’s pre-K readiness program.  

In addition to the classes for little ones, the studio project hosts therapeutic art classes for parents at their storefront studio on Sherman Avenue to complement the students’ learning. Following the 12-week program at Learning Bridge, OSP will take their art instruction to Reba Early Learning Center and the Childcare Network of Evanston.

Addressing disparities in Evanston households

Aiming to expose Evanston youth, especially those from low-income households, to new experiences and enhance their social skills, Open Studio Project partnered with Evanston Cradle to Career (EC2C), a local network of social service providers and community stakeholders, to develop the pre-K readiness program.

The program is structured to advance the network’s mission to ensure all Evanston children receive the necessary preparation to succeed in kindergarten and into their adult lives. Of the 70 children served through the program, nearly 90 percent are from low-income or economically-stressed households.

In 2017, the Illinois Report Card showed there was a 27 percent achievement gap between students from non-low-income and low-income households at Evanston Township High School. OSP leaders aim to intervene in the lives of local youth earlier, reducing this disparity in the future and creating cycles of positive emotional patterns in families.

Art programs see early successes

Prior to hosting the pre-K readiness classes, OSP piloted the social and emotional arts program in a few special needs classes at Lincoln School and King Arts Elementary School in Evanston. Students and teachers shared cheerful stories of their experience and many participants displayed more positive behaviors.

Based on early survey feedback, teachers reported that their students showed improved relationship skills, responsible decision-making, increased self-awareness, better self-management and more social awareness. Many students were also able to focus on their art projects for up to 30 minutes, a task that is often difficult for special needs students.

“Having Open Studio Project in my classroom has been a wonderful opportunity for my students to explore art through an open-ended forum,” said Leah Johnston, a teacher from Lincoln School. “Much of our school day is highly structured, and so the opportunity to have open choice and expression through something as concrete and tangible as making art is unlike many other experiences.”

In mid-February, following their program, about two dozen students from Kings Art Elementary School came to OSP’s two-room studio for an exhibition of their art. During their visit, they molded foil, tape and streamers into creations and admired their artwork hanging in the studio’s gallery.

As the group concluded their visit, one of the teachers called to the students, “If you like seeing your artwork in the gallery, clap your hands!”

Among the applause, one of the students, Lissette, 11, who sported a sequined backpack and fuzzy winter hat, excitedly slapped her hands on the armrests of her wheelchair.

Just before leaving, she turned to her teacher with a contagious smile. “I’ll show my mom, mi Madre,” she said. “I can’t believe our artwork is here!”


Y.O.U. Summer Programs Expand Evanston Kids’ Horizons  

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.”



Former Bears Player and AmeriCorps Volunteer Spark Fruitful Friendship

When Nikko Ross arrived at Ignite, a Young Leaders United fundraiser benefiting United Way’s AmeriCorps volunteers, he anticipated a casual night of fun and celebration. Little did he know, a chat with a special guest would spark a rewarding friendship that will extend far beyond the party.

During the night’s celebrations, the 22-year-old Evanston native struck up a conversation with Israel Idonije, a former Chicago Bears player and a speaker at the annual event for young professionals. In a short time, their encounter evolved into a mentor-mentee dynamic — one that would open doors for Nikko and the kids he advises.

“The first time we met we talked about a partnership and the energy we could get back to the kids and community,” said Nikko, a first-term AmeriCorps volunteer, serving in United Way’s Evanston Neighborhood Network.

After learning more about Nikko’s work, Israel extended an invitation for Nikko and 26 kids from Family Focus Group, a United Way-funded partner, to participate in his all-star football and cheerleading camp.

“Anytime you’re fortunate to find someone who is coming from the same heart, the same vision and there’s an opportunity to build and support and work together, that’s the dream. I’m thankful to have great people on board and great partnerships like that,” said Israel of the connection that brought Nikko and the kids to the camp.

Opening doors for Evanston youth

Nikko Ross and Israel Idonije at iF Charity’s all-star football and cheerleading camp.

For 12 years, Israel has been leading the camp, which is hosted by his nonprofit iF charities, with the goal of improving kids’ social and emotional life skills and teaching them the value of teamwork. Annually, it serves more than 250 kids from underrepresented communities.

“The platform of sport helps you to learn how to work with others — it’s about supporting one another and cheering everyone on,” said Israel. “They’d drop the ball and the first few times they’re sad. But listen, you dropped the ball once, don’t dwell on it and drop it again and again. Refocus, sharpen and catch it the next time.”

“It’s learning the fundamentals of how to handle life. Wins, losses, failures,” he added.

For many kids, the one-day camp was their first exposure to organized sports and team building, advancing one of the Evanston Neighborhood Network’s bold goals of increasing racial and ethnic parity by connecting African-American and Latinx children to a wide-range of new, life-changing opportunities.

“They loved it,” said Nikko. “We’re giving kids the opportunities to express creativity and have fun. It’s a confidence builder for sure.”

Jelani Calhoun, an 8-year-old from Family Focus, especially liked playing quarterback at the camp. “It was really good. I was catching the ball and helping my team learn,” he said.

“It was real cheerleading, not fake. You’re actually doing it, the cheers and dancing,” said Chayse Johnson, 10, who had never learned cheerleading before. “My favorite was the lifting.”

With little hesitation, both Evanston kids exclaimed they’d be back again next year.

While the kids were elated by the experience, Nikko, who said the camp brought back memories of playing high school football, also relished the opportunity to share his love for the game with the kids he’s investing in. “People bond through a lot of things, but football brings out a brotherhood and moments to cherish,” said Nikko. “I want to give back to youth and give kids opportunities. This is where it starts.”


What’s a Neighborhood Network?

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