Abuse Survivors See Path Forward with Latinos Progresando

When someone experiences violence or abuse, it can be incredibly difficult to ask for help — whether it’s from a family member, law enforcement or a social service provider.

For a person who immigrated to the United States and lacks U.S. citizenship or a legal immigration status, it’s even more daunting. Immigrant survivors of abuse often fear arrest, deportation or loss of their family from reporting their harm and getting help.

To provide support during these distressing situations, each year, legal representatives from Latinos Progresando provide free, full-service legal aid to hundreds of immigrants both in Chicago and across the United States.

“It’s very difficult when you decide to say ‘no more’ [to the abuse,]” said Silvia Jimenez, Latinos Progresando’s director of legal services. “When you decide to stop, it’s important to have resources to help you go through that moment and stage of your life. No one needs to worry about how they’re going to support themselves or their kids.”

A member of United Way’s Little Village Neighborhood Network, Latinos Progresando and other neighborhood service providers seek to build a community where peace exists and violence is eliminated. By caring for its most vulnerable neighbors, Latinos Progresando puts its vision for a safe community into action.

Through its VAWA Project — named for the federal Violence Against Women Act — legal representatives at Latinos Progresando help community members who’ve experienced or are experiencing violence or abuse determine if they’re eligible to apply for special legal protections.

Little Village Peace March 2018

If so, the reps may help the individuals — who are typically women and their children — file legal paperwork, file for court-ordered protection from their abuser and navigate complex immigration processes, which sometimes can take more than a decade to complete.

In the meantime, to ensure the safety and security of its clients, Latinos Progresando also connects them to vital resources, like food and housing assistance. Through United Way’s Neighborhood Network, Latinos Progresando has built strong partnerships with other service providers in the Little Village area to meet residents’ varying needs. In these difficult times, this collaborative network is critical to ensuring individuals and families are supported and further trauma caused by homelessness and hunger are avoided. 

But first residents must know that Latinos Progresando and others in the Neighborhood Network are here to help.

To inform Little Village residents about the resources available to them, Latinos Progresando staff hosts monthly info sessions about their services and immigration information. Recently, they teamed up with their Neighborhood Network partners to host a two-day workshop on cycles of domestic violence and ways to get help.

“Domestic violence is such a personal thing to many people. They don’t want to talk about it,” said Marcy Gonzalez, chief operating officer of Latinos Progresando. “But we want them to know there are resources here when they’re ready.”

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Learn more about the Little Village Neighborhood Network and its work to enhance community health and reduce violence. 


Cooking & Conversations: Health Promoters Host Nutrition Chats

Lilia Lopez, a class attendee, mixes up the fruit and yogurt parfaits.

In a small classroom in Little Village, Gloria Hernandez passed around recipes to a handful of women clad in hairnets and aprons. On this December morning, parfait de fruta y yogurt, or fruit and yogurt parfaits, were on the menu.

As the women peeled and chopped bananas, strawberries, apples and papayas, Gloria guided the culinary lesson. One of about 18 volunteers, Gloria works as a health promoter for Erie Neighborhood House’s Comprando Rico y Sano program.

Hosting charlas, or small educational classes, Gloria and her peers teach Chicago residents how to improve their health and the health of their families through cooking demonstrations, educational presentations and other family-friendly activities.

“I love it. I love how it makes people feel,” Gloria said of her teaching.

Hands-On Health Charlas

A partner of United Way of Metro Chicago, Erie Neighborhood House strives to serve entire families’ needs, from nurturing children’s development to empowering adults to build stronger communities. Through its nutrition program, Comprando Rico y Sano, volunteer health promoters address the foundation for families’ success – their physical health.

Gloria, a West Town resident, began volunteering as a health promoter with the program two years ago. Like some of her fellow volunteers, she hoped the program would help her develop healthy eating habits she could pass along to her family.

“The ones that join the group, each of them has a different story and different reason to be there. And once they start learning, that empowers them, and they want to go out to the community and share their stories,” Elva Serna, a community engagement specialist at Erie Neighborhood House, said of the health promoters. She manages the program, hosts charlas and trains Gloria and the other volunteers.

The group of women chop up fruit for their yogurt parfait breakfast.

“[Health promoters] are not different from the community,” Elva added. We have different issues and we are struggling with different things. But we tell [residents] ‘If we’re working together, we’re not alone.’ And that can help them to change their eating habits.”

To educate their neighbors, the health promoters bring the charlas, which typically include a cooking and nutrition lesson, directly to groups of 10 to 100 community members. Sometimes, they host chats for groups of students at a school. On other occasions, they teach parents at a church or senior citizens at their residential home.

The health promoters create pop-up kitchens for the group to test out new recipes using ingredients they likely already have at home, like cauliflower ceviche, pepilocos and chickpea salad. Erie Neighborhood House provides all the necessary ingredients for the demos, as well as kitchen tools and portable appliances, like stovetops, blenders and toasters, to make each dish.

The health promoters sometimes take the lesson into neighborhood supermarkets, where they teach parents and families how to plan and find quick, healthy meals on a tight budget.

“We’re trying to empower them and give them the right information and options, so they can be more healthy,” Elva said. “We want them to learn and to create anchors for memories — like you have from your childhood — related to food.”

Lifestyle Lessons

Gloria presents the nutrition lesson to English-language learners at Erie Neighborhood House’s Little Village location.

Once their meals are complete, the community members  snack on their treat as the health promoters present the nutrition lesson.

On this December day, Gloria hosted the final charla in a three-part series for English-language learners at Erie Neighborhood House’s Little Village location. The group of mostly 20-to-40-year-old women learned about portion sizes, the health benefits of the five food groups, how to read nutrition labels and what are healthy alternatives for their favorite comfort foods.

Gloria encourages the community members in her classes to make the new dishes for their families, especially their children who are beginning to develop their food habits.

These tips could be particularly beneficial to the youth who call the southwest neighborhood of Little Village home. Exasperated by high poverty rates and limited access to healthy and affordable foods, 32 percent of Little Village kindergartners, 6th-graders and 9th-graders are obese — the highest rate for any area in the Chicago region.

In response, the health promoters volunteering with the Comprando Rico y Sano program have committed to making a difference in the lives of residents, like Lilia Lopez. At the close of class, she proudly boasted about making the cauliflower ceviche for her family, a new favorite among them.

“For me, the nutrition class is very important,” Lilia said. “Now, I know how to choose the right products. This way, I’m helping my family by making more nutritious and healthy choices.”


At Annual March, Little Village Residents Call for Peace

On a crisp Autumn afternoon, Little Village residents and their allies, clad in purple t-shirts, weaved through their southwest Chicago neighborhood marching for peace and an end to domestic violence.

Hosted by the Marshall Square Resource Network (MSRN), participants of the 5th Annual Peace March sought to commemorate the lives of individuals who’ve been killed in acts of violence and unite neighbors on a peaceful front. The march is an extension of the Little Village Neighborhood Network’s goal to reduce violence in the neighborhood, which frequently experiences both domestic and community violence.

“Every October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The last five years, as a Network, we’ve decided to pay honor to that month,” said Jennifer Idrovo, the director of MSRN, a group of community agencies who’ve partnered with United Way to help meet the needs of residents on the east side of Chicago’s Little Village community, known as Marshall Square.

A recent study by Sinai Health System, one of the Neighborhood Network’s partners, found that one-third of individuals in South Lawndale, the larger region where Little Village and Marshall Square are located, have reported domestic partner violence. In addition, 78 percent have reported witnessing domestic violence, Jennifer said.

“We gather here in Marshall Square and we march around the community to let people know that domestic violence is an issue that is very focused on homes and families, but we want to make sure that we call attention to it in the community,” Jennifer added. “Violence affects everyone — their education, their health.”

Neighbors encourage peace

Carrying signs and chanting positive messages, dozens of residents joined the procession, including Ana Gonzalez, a 13-year resident of Little Village, and her young daughter.

“We want people to know that we are working together to show others it is possible to make peace,” Ana said, as the young girl scribbled away on her sign that read: “Pasos para la comunidad,” meaning “steps for the community” in Spanish.

One of her comrades in the march, Julian Zuzarte, works as a caseworker and translator at Taller de José, another United Way partner agency. Though he doesn’t live in Little Village, he works closely with its residents every day and cares deeply about their safety and prosperity.

“I think it’s a great way to bring everyone together, especially in a festive season, to let them know that these are daily occurrences of violence…and to have this event that is bilingual and brings people together in a city that is pretty segregated,” Julian said.

Accessing resources for care

As the sun set and the march dissolved, the group of peacemakers made their way to Apollos 2000 Theater, where leaders of the march organized a rally, complete with a buffet dinner, ornate alters to celebrate the lives of those lost to violence, speeches from residents and a resource fair for residents to learn about health, educational and violence prevention and response services.

“We want to make sure that we’re highlighting all the amazing things that are happening here in our community, so we have about 15 organizations that are at our rally talking about their youth programs, talking about their peace circles,” Jennifer said, standing alongside her colleague Maritza Guzman, another MSRN leader. “We want our residents to know about all the great things that already exist here in Marshall Square.”

 “We want you to know that if you are a victim of domestic violence, there are resources for you,” Maritza added. “You are not alone.”

If you or someone close to you is experiencing domestic violence and wishes to get help, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).


Little Village Students, Chicago Bears Huddle Up to Talk Character

Middle school is hard. It’s a time when young people are trying to figure out their friendships, their emotions and who they want to be. For some students at Spry Community School in Little Village, the challenges outside of school are even greater. With so much on their plates, things like character development and building healthy relationships are often far from their minds.

But Henry and Alex, two 8th graders at Spry, aren’t letting life’s hardships stand in their way of becoming strong leaders.

Both soft-spoken and shy on the surface, these boys are quick to stand up for others. Described by their teacher as “upstanders,” Alex and Henry are in tune with how their classmates are feeling. “Alex is good at bridge building and helping students handle conflicts,” said Ms. Nelson, explaining that he is often the first to step in and diffuse a tense situation. “Henry is good at noticing who is being left out or alone and including them,” she added.

While these traits are likely due to a natural intuition, these young men had some help putting the language to their feelings and those of their peers.

Spry is one of 51 schools across the Chicago region using the Character Playbook curriculum, a program designed to help cultivate and maintain healthy relationships during students’ most critical school years. And both the teachers and students have seen the difference.

“The program helped me understand best my feelings, or emotions or how I react to certain things,” said Alex, “One thing I learned is how like, body science – how you can tell when someone’s upset or how they’re feeling, so I try to help them out by talking to them.”

“With the Playbook I learned what other feelings of the other person are like,” added Henry. “I think it will help me later on to know even if I don’t know people and they’re going through something, I can just stand up because I know how they’re gonna be feeling if they’re going through something hard.

Using a graphic novel format, the Character Playbook online course walks students through a series of interactive exercises that help them to better understand their own values and how they can relate to others. These online modules are paired with offline curriculum that helps the students put what they’ve learned into practice. For the 8th graders of Spry, it culminated in a visit to Soldier Field and an opportunity to meet the Chicago Bears.

When the students arrived at Soldier Field, they were greeted outside of the Bears locker room by Chris Draft, Jerry Azumah, James ‘Big Cat’ Williams and Rashied Davis, four Chicago Bears alumni. Each student was given a high five, a handshake and a hug – individually recognizing them and letting them know that they were welcomed. Once everyone settled in their seats, Chris Draft opened the conversation by asking the students to share their names, what makes them uniquely special and what they want to be when they grow up.

As the students shared, often calling out the special qualities in one another, the players also opened up about their personal stories and adversities they’ve faced. Many of the students shared big dreams for their future, ones that may seem impossible to some people. The players encouraged them to seek wisdom and advice, and to develop the strength of character to face those challenges. “Adversity is gonna happen,” said Jerry Azumah, “it’s going to test your character of who you are as a person. You have to dig deep and find out exactly who you are and what you can accomplish.”

“This is just another way that we can get down deep into our kids’ lives, and especially into our middle school kids, and really talk to them about making choices at a time in their lives when there are a lot of things going on,” Chris Draft said.

Alex and Henry agree they’ll carry these lessons into the future.

“[I’ve learned] how to see things, like other point of views,” said Alex, “Or how to control yourself, your emotions and how to use them in certain situations or how to react to things.”

Check out a recap of the Spry students’ day with the Bears!


Communities across the Chicago region are faced with interrelated problems that no agency or leader can tackle alone. Through our Neighborhood Network Initiative, leaders of ten communities have partnered with United Way of Metro Chicago to strategize, plan and resolve the daily challenges their residents face.

With a goal of creating a healthier, safer and more resilient community, stakeholders in Little Village, a vibrant Latino neighborhood, joined together to form the Marshall Square Resource Network (MSRN). Together, they make up the Little Village Neighborhood Network. These partners are working together to curb violence, improve schools and help residents achieve economic security.

Driving out community violence with peace

Each year, the community of Marshall Square, a subset of Little Village, brings awareness to the issue of domestic violence by organizing an annual march. While snaking through their streets, residents call for violence to cease and neighbors to offer compassion and support to those who have been harmed. Following the Peach March, residents are connected to local resources to help them identify, respond to, and heal from violence and trauma.

Through collaborative projects between the Network’s partners, stakeholders are also providing much-needed outlets and resources to address other deeply rooted issues such as gang violence, obesity and depression.

One example is an initiative for local youth organized by Teatro Americano. Meant to challenge the normalization of violence in relationships, the program combined education about healthy relationships with theater exercises to create an interactive and informative environment.

Training parents to improve students’ education

The collaborative groups aim to create positive school environments and academic experiences for Little Village’s students by involving the entire family.

Through the Supportive School Communities initiative, local parents have been trained to facilitate community discussions in four Marshall Square community schools. They educate their peers on the importance of social-emotional learning (SEL) in the classroom and in their homes.

When parents are involved in their child’s education, children are more likely to be engaged and receive help at home, putting them on the path to academic success.

Encouraging healthy lifestyles through safe spaces

In addition, local leaders are promoting healthy lifestyles through exercise and gardening. By creating safer, more accessible outdoor spaces, they hope to reduce childhood obesity, a problem too many Marshall Square children face.

Through a walkability study, leaders have assessed obstacles and safety concerns that may impede outdoor activity, like unsafe intersections and hazardous sidewalks. Then, they’ll mitigate those problems.

A new community garden is in the works, too. MSRN recently announced the launch of a plot at Charles G. Hammond Elementary School. Hundreds of community members will have the opportunity to utilize the garden, providing them with access to fresh homegrown produce, as well a space for community-building.

Our community partners in the neighborhood also offer obesity prevention and weight loss services at neighborhood schools and obesity reduction programs at two community health centers. Starting this spring, an after-school walking club for neighborhood kids will take its first steps

Improving a community is a group effort

MSRN’s wide reach shows what’s possible when neighbors come together to drive long-lasting change.

Individually, these community partners offer vital services that drastically improve lives. But together, they create a community that neighbors are proud to call “home.”

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

Neighborhood Network Spotlight: Little Village

On a sunny afternoon in Little Village, the Marshall Square Resource Network Health Committee sat around a conference room table at the Esperanza Health Center discussing an empty lot by Hammond Elementary School. There were suggestions for a food garden, a space for zumba and yoga classes, the potential for a zen garden- anything to get students outside.

The childhood obesity rate in Little Village is a staggering 32 percent, almost double the national average. The roots of the problem are varied and compounded; poor eating habits, made worse by the high prices of healthy foods, coupled with a lack of safe outdoor spaces, set children up for a lifetime of health problems. With the help of United Way and their Neighborhood Network Initiative, Little Village is working to change the story.

The Marshall Square Resource Network was formed to connect organizations and partners around Little Village to “build the capacity of member agencies, create integrated solutions and organize for community change.” With the financial backing of United Way, MSRN is able to leverage the knowledge of their members, their community connections and their various resources to address a variety of issues, including childhood obesity, the neighborhood’s “bold goal.”

The members of the Health Committee, led by Sofia Mendez of Latinos Progresando, the lead agency for the Neighborhood Network, went around the room, exploring alternative ways to think about weight loss, adjusting their focus from numbers on a scale to healthy lifestyle choices. Instead of monitoring weight loss and counting pounds, committee members suggested asking how often residents go outside, take walks or are active throughout the day. They also discussed the creation of running and walking clubs at local schools, a place where students could not only exercise, but gain teamwork skills, achieve a goal and create bonds in the community in a safe environment. Another perk? Parents could lead the clubs, giving them leadership experience and providing them with training in trauma informed care- an approach that stresses the connections between behavioral issues and socioemotional issues, and provides children support from a place of patience and kindness. For the representatives at the table, harking from the Lincoln Park Zoo, Esperanza Health Centers, Latinos Progresando and other community organizations, it is necessary to work from an understanding that good health includes more than just the physical- emotional, psychological and mental wellness all are necessary to lead a healthy life.

But the issues in Little Village encompass more than just health; MSRN is dedicated to solving a range of problems, from safety to trauma support to education. The Peace Committee, composed of coalition members such as Sarah’s Inn, Taller de Jose and La Familia Unida, among others, formed to combat community and domestic violence and works to “reduce domestic violence in the Marshall Square Neighborhood, reduce the effects of domestic violence, cooperatively create procedures and strategies to serve victims and their children and to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions.” The committee sees domestic violence as a community problem, not an individual problem, and believes it is the job of the community to reach out to victims and safely extend support rather than wait for them to seek help. They recognize that a proactive and coordinated response to domestic violence is itself a form of crime prevention, and is a necessary step in ending the cycle of trauma.

The Marshall Square Resource Network is also working towards creating a safer and more prosperous community for all residents. OPEN Center for the Arts, located around the corner from Latinos Progresando, is a member of MSRN and an artistic hub for Marshall Square. Their mission is to “provide a space where all artists can come together to educate, showcase, refine, and develop their talents as well as support entrepreneurship opportunities in the arts while connecting their growth to the community.” In partnership with Latinos Progresando and in line with the mission of MSRN, the are also home to Teatro Americano, a theater company for local teens to write and perform stories about their own lives, as well as “inspire the people of [the] community to create art, enjoy art, and question and think critically about art.” In a neighborhood where 85 percent of the residents are Hispanic, the art featured at OPEN often reflects their Mexican heritage, celebrating the history and culture of the community. OPEN, and programs like Teatro Americano not only provide an opportunity to process the events taking place in the community through art, but also provide a space for safe, fun and engaging entertainment that improves the quality of life in Little Village.

For Mendez, these programs are part of her vision of success for MSRN. For the community, she envisions Marshall Square as a place where people feel safe, where schools perform at a high level and people are excited to visit, attracted by local cuisine, art and culture. For the organization, she hopes to strengthen and sustain the Marshall Square Resource Network, retaining talent, building on partnerships, increasing funding and growing to include any and all organizations dedicated to creating a better Little Village.

Blog submitted by: Elana Ross, Intern, Public Policy and Advocacy