Apna Ghar Advocates for Sexual Assault Survivors

In honor of April’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we recognize the strength and resilience of survivors of sexual assault and celebrate our compassionate community partners who work to end violence and encourage healing in our city.

Neha Gill has traveled the world studying gender issues. From East Africa to Latin America to Asia, she’s shaped policies and initiatives to better serve survivors of violence.

In Chicago, Neha is putting that insight into action as executive director of Apna Ghar. A United Way community partner, Apna Ghar provides holistic services to survivors of violence who are from immigrant communities. These include legal aid, counseling, housing assistance, employment services and more.

Since she was hired to the post in 2016, Neha has also overseen the agency’s education and advocacy programs. Through these initiatives, she and her team aim to change the culture, laws and responses to sexual assault that inhibit survivors from receiving justice or healing, and perpetrators from changing their behavior.

“The goal is to improve the conditions for the people that we’re serving,” Neha said. “We don’t want to just provide services and see them not be able to succeed because certain institutions or policies or society at large isn’t accepting.”

As an advocate for immigrant survivors, Neha views April’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) as a moment to educate and activate our peers to end violence in our homes, neighborhoods and across the region. We, at United Way, echo her call.

Foremost, SAAM provides an opportunity to dispel misconceptions of sexual assault, Neha said. Among those is the fallacy that perpetrators are typically strangers looming in dark alleys. Instead, statistics show that they’re often someone the survivor knows, including friends, family and significant others.

Neha also seeks to bring attention to the unique needs of survivors from immigrant communities, the population Apna Ghar closely serves. Experiencing assault can be even more confusing and traumatizing for survivors who don’t know what services are available to them or those who can’t find help in their native language. Violence can also be increasingly isolating if survivors don’t have family in the region or the person who is harming them is their only source of support. Perpetrators may even hold a survivor’s immigration status against them, threatening to turn them over to authorities if they seek help.

Neha encourages her neighbors to go beyond learning about the problem to invest in prevention efforts, like Apna Ghar’s educational outreach. Statistics show that girls are 300% more likely to experience violence in adulthood if they were abused as a child, and boys are 600% more likely to be perpetrate violence if they were exposed to violence as a kid, she said.

She proposes that, together, we must teach children, teens and young adults about healthy masculinity, relationships and acceptable treatment of women and LGBT individuals. We must also facilitate programs that teach perpetrators of violence how to genuinely rebuild and repair relationships with those they’ve harmed.

And though SAAM lasts only a month, Neha’s vision for a violence-free future is everlasting. She’ll keep working until all people are treated equally and violence is eradicated.

But she can’t do it without you. Support Apna Ghar and other violence intervention and prevention efforts through our Safety Net programs. Together, we can ensure hate and harm don’t have a home in our city.

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.”