Blue Cap Pantry Brings Fresh Goods to a Food Desert  

On a sunny Tuesday in March, Deborah Shirley, a caretaker living in Robbins, took a break from her daily duties to pick up groceries for her and her mother. But, unfortunately for her and her neighbors, there are no quality grocery stores within the city limits.

In addition to living in an area known as a “food desert,” Deborah was working on a tight budget. Instead of trying to stretch her dollars at the closest affordable store, she stopped at Blue Cap Pantry, a food bank serving Blue Island, Robbins and the surrounding communities each and every Tuesday. Housed in a bright, airy warehouse in Blue Cap’s building, the pantry opened last September to bring healthy food options to the region.

“It’s so nice and clean, and everybody is so friendly,” Deborah said as she picked through butternut squash and other produce.

“[My mom] enjoys seeing everything I bring back…You know, it’s kinda rough out here. You gotta go to other towns to get something fresh,” she added, walking to her car. “ I really do appreciate it. Times are really hard, and it’s just a blessing to be able to come here.”

It takes a village to open the pantry doors

The creation of the Blue Cap Pantry illustrates the power of partnerships built through United Way of Metro Chicago’s Neighborhood Network Initiative.

In community meetings, members of the Blue Island-Robbins Neighborhood Network agreed that issues faced by children and families in the area, like poor health and high poverty, were rooted in a lack of access to healthy foods. Creating a pantry would be a critical first step to resolving those problems.

As they began planning, the network members realized it would take a number of partners to make the pantry successful. Blue Cap offered up their space and got approvals to run the pantry, while another partner, the Greater Chicago Food Depository, agreed to provide the food and goods to stock its shelves.

“There’s a lot of food insecurity and poverty in this area,” said Pat Thies, executive director of Blue Cap, a non-profit with robust educational and workforce training programs for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. “The whole network thought [Blue Cap] would be a good location. There’s a school right across the street, so families could bring their kids after they pick them up or stop to get food before.”

Other community partners in the Network began to connect residents to the pantry and set up booths at its entrance to provide information about other services, including elder care, medical assistance and counseling, available to local children and families.

Together, they’re not only helping to silence the growl of hunger in Blue Island and Robbins, but building a stronger, more united community that addresses residents’ various needs.

Just like a grocery store

Unlike some pantries that offer patrons prepackaged bags, Blue Cap Pantry shoppers select their own groceries, just as they would at a store .“We wanted the pantry to have a grocery store feel,” said Regina Brown-White, the pantry’s coordinator. “And we don’t do packed bags because we want to give them something they actually want to eat.”

The Greater Chicago Food Depository delivers thousands of pounds of food each Tuesday, and Blue Cap supplements the goods with additional items, like meat and dairy, which often fly off the shelves. Seasonal food drives also help fill the need at especially busy times of the year. Last year, United Way’s annual April Food Day collection provided more than 128,000 pounds of food to south-southwest suburban pantries, including the Blue Cap Pantry.

On this Tuesday, after a large shipment arrived from the Greater Chicago Food Depository, many fresh options filled the pantry’s shelves, including red onions, cabbage, baby carrots, sweet potatoes, beans, crackers, cereals and oatmeals, canned fruits, chicken quarters, yogurt, eggs, fresh multigrain breads and more.

As an additional perk, each shopping day, Regina and her volunteers cook up a dish utilizing a few products in their last shipment, giving patrons a warm meal when they arrive. It also sends them off with ideas of how to use the products in the pantry. This day, Regina noticed they had pasta, marinara sauce and bell peppers, so she cooked up a pot of spaghetti for shoppers.

Volunteers feel the impact too

Not only do the pantry’s patrons benefit from access to free food, the pantry’s volunteers, most of whom are Blue Cap clients, also shop there and learn important life skills through their service.

Each Tuesday, they open the doors and greet patrons, stock shelves, and load groceries into shoppers’ cars. This experience prepares them for jobs in the community and teaches them management skills to use in their day to day life, like planning a budget for a shopping trip.

Keith Konsoer, a long-time resident of Blue Island, has worked at the pantry every week since it opened. “I love everything here. They’re all my friends,” he said of the other volunteers.

Across the room, Sherry Kaline, another volunteer, helped patrons select personal hygiene and household goods, like lightbulbs and rubber gloves for cleaning. Sherry especially enjoys keeping her mind busy at the pantry and working with her peers to serve the community.

“I came here and found out where my home is,” she said.

* * *

Support Blue Cap Pantry with a donation to April Food Day 2019! Through donations of non-perishable food items, household goods and financial support, you can help more individuals and families in the south-southwest suburbs meet their most basic needs.

 

Bronzeville Builds Pipeline for Youth Employment

Despite its great cultural and economic contributions to Chicago, Bronzeville is still recovering from decades of divestment. To address the existing inequities, a local non-profit is making long-term plans to revitalize the community through its workforce. 

To spur lasting change, Bright Star Community Outreach invests in Bronzeville’s future —  its youth.

By expanding on a citywide, summer youth-employment program, the community non-profit is laying plans for an employment pipeline that connects local youth to summer jobs and internships and prepares them for higher education and/or rewarding careers. 

“We believe that if we can begin with the young people and set them on a trajectory of success, then we can impact the landscape of the community,” said Nichole Carter, director of community strategy and development for Bright Star Community Outreach.

Community tackles inequalities through workforce development

Bright Star Community Outreach (BSCO) is the lead agency of the Greater Bronzeville Neighborhood Network, a coalition of 13 community partners supported by United Way of Metro Chicago. The partners —  including social service agencies, schools and healthcare providers — work together to offer solutions and services aimed at reducing poverty and violence by enhancing employment and career opportunities for its 42,000-plus residents.

For decades, the city’s investment in Bronzeville has been disproportionate to other communities. Presently, the neighborhood has 19 percent unemployment rate and $29,500 median income. In 2013, the city closed 50 public schools, primarily in communities of color. A handful of schools in the greater Bronzeville area were shuttered or reconfigured during the process.

“The message that was given was ‘education is not that important in Bronzeville.’ Now, what do we do for some of those young people who may become disenfranchised or disconnected from education?” Nichole asked.

To answer that question, BSCO is filling the gap through youth training and employment opportunities.  

Summer jobs train youth in new fields

In just a few months, 250 Bronzeville youth ages 14 to 24 will kick off their six-week summer program with BSCO community partners.  As part of the City of Chicago’s One Summer Chicago program, BSCO pairs students with job and internship opportunities that closely align with their interests. There, they will enhance their skillsets and build professional connections.

This year, some 14-to 15-year-olds in the program will be placed with partners who provide leadership and advocacy skills training, while others will work on a community project to collect their neighbors’ oral histories and research leaders in their community. They’ll receive a stipend for their participation.

Youth ages 16 to 21 will be placed in one of four cohorts —  property management, civic engagement, leadership and pharmacy —  where they’ll earn an hourly wage by providing administrative, maintenance and resident services support to a management company; completing administrative work in local government officials’ offices; participating in a leadership and entrepreneurship training; or serving under technicians at a local pharmacy.

They’ll also join their fellow cohort members for community building activities.

Building a pipeline from summer jobs to careers

Though the summer employment program is short-term, BSCO envisions it as a pipeline to a rewarding career and a brighter future. The summer jobs and internships are the youth’s entry point.

At the end of the summer, Nichole’s team at BSCO encourages students to nurture the professional connections they’ve cultivated and pursue further opportunities with the partners.

“We’re hopeful that some of the relationships that we build will result in mentoring relationships that will extend to support that youth will have during the school year and also in the years to come,” Nichole said. “We’d like for youth to come back to us next summer with some different skills and experiences that we can build upon.”  

For those who have graduated high school, BSCO is hopeful the summer placement will catapult them to living-wage career opportunities. As an extra layer of support, BSCO works to connect youth to partners who can provide additional employment services.

“For students who may not plan to go to college or can’t afford college, this program gives them a certain experience that helps them obtain a job that sustains a household and not just a job where they’re living paycheck to paycheck,” said Kathy Cullick, BSCO community coordinator.

“College is not for everybody, and that’s okay,” Nichole added. “But a pathway towards success should be available to everyone.”

 *  *  *

Bright Star Community Outreach is currently recruiting youth for the 2019 One Summer Chicago program. To apply, visit http://www.onesummerchicago.org. For additional information about the BSCO positions, call 773-741-4667 or email onesummerchicago@brightstarcommunityoutreach.com

(Photo courtesy of One Summer Chicago)

Housing: The Foundation for Student Success

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.

 

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.”

 

 

Blue Island Library Meal Program Helps Silence the Growl of Summer Hunger

On a hot July day in the south suburb of Blue Island, 16 miles from the Chicago Loop, a dozen local kids and their families trickled into the town’s quiet community library. They weren’t simply there to feed their minds with stories, but to fill their stomachs at the library’s summer lunch program.

The program, in its second year, seeks to tackle food insecurity in the community, a problem that swells in the summer months when youth don’t have access to school meals.

Kaity O’Neal, a mother of seven, learned about the program when she started working at the library. She often brings two of her kids, Kaiah, 13, and Elisha, 7, with her to work and they utilize the meal program during the summer break. “They just absolutely love it here,” Katherine said.

Kaiah and Elisha enjoy the snacks, but they especially love the people and activities. “I meet new friends every day and I like to read Origami books,” said Kaiah.

In the 2018 season the Blue Island Library meal program was expanded to a full week of service, and in its first 20 days has served more than 300 kids. In comparison, it served it 186 meals during last year’s 8-week stint when meals were only offered two days a week.

“Blue Island and Robbins [don’t] have a major grocery store. They got rid of it maybe six years ago,” said Ashley Palomo, a United Way-AmeriCorps member, of the region’s status as a “food desert.” To address this dilemma, the program, which is one of dozens of city Summer Food Service Programs supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, offers free lunches Monday through Friday to children of all ages.

Kaiah, 13, and Elisha, 7, eat lunch at the Blue Island Library.

With the help of Ashley and her fellow AmeriCorps member, Kassandra Esparza, the program’s expansion has helped to advance the Blue Island-Robbins Neighborhood Network’s goal to become a physically healthy community.

The Neighborhood Network, a coalition of social service providers who partner with United Way to improve the communities of Blue Island and Robbins, aims to reduce food insecurity for 15 percent of families served by the network by 2027.

On this day, a handful of kids came specifically to the Blue Island Library for the meal program, while others were visiting and stopped in out of curiosity. Gathered at tables in a wood-paneled room filled with local historical artifacts, the kids ate their lunch of chicken Caesar wraps, honeydew, cherry tomatoes and chocolate milk.

Along with their meal, they colored, listened to music and read books, which offered a welcoming break from the humidity outdoors and a chance for their parents to scour the bookshelves upstairs.

A mother of five with a baby on the way, Katherine Guzik, learned about the program while walking through the library that day. It was her first visit, and her 8-year-old Alejandra Ramirez-Guzik was hungry for an early afternoon snack between her mother’s errands.

Like a lot of the parents in the community, Katherine was delighted to learn about the program’s goal to connect kids to meals. “It’s definitely something in the area that’s helpful. If you’ve been to other libraries, a lot of people sit around because they have nowhere else to go,” Katherine said. “It’s important to fill their stomachs.”

 

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.”

 

Cracking the Code to New Career Pathways

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.

 

AmeriCorps Volunteers: Chicago’s Unsung Community Champions

With three academic degrees, fluency in five languages and a slew of certificates under her belt, Gabriela Juárez Domínguez has the skills to succeed in several careers. However, the Rogers Park resident is dedicating a year of her life to improving the lives of others in the Chicago region, serving as an AmeriCorps volunteer for the United Way of Metro Chicago.

“I’m excited and really like my work,” said Gabriela, who supports social emotional learning, technology and art programs for children and teens in Little Village, a neighborhood located in southwest Chicago. “We work to improve the conditions of people.”

Having returned to the United States after 12 years in Spain, Gabriela saw AmeriCorps, a national service program operating across the country, as an opportunity to reignite her career and “update” her toolkit of skills needed to serve in the city’s non-profit sector. With nearly half her commitment fulfilled, Gabriela is making great strides toward fulfilling these goals.

Gabriela, Bianca and several United Way AmeriCorps members at this year’s Ignite event.

Ten United Way of Metro Chicago AmeriCorps members, ranging from 18-years-old to 50-years-old and at all levels of professional experience, serve in eight neighborhoods, supporting a range of programs and services that help connect residents to much-needed resources. “We want to raise up leaders already in the community to find solutions to problems,” said Bianca Cotton, United Way of Metro Chicago’s AmeriCorps program manager. “They have the training, capacity and connections to do so.”

Some, like Gabriela, are embedded in specific United Way funded community agencies, like Latinos Progresando and OPEN Center for the Arts, while others support individuals working to create a network of grassroots organizations within their communities. These “change agents” also connect with local leaders to advance their efforts and host events, like peace walks and studies to assess neighborhood safety. “They are the boots on the ground day to day, interacting with who we raise money for — teachers, students, parents,” Bianca said. “They get to see the real impact. They’re in it.”

Though they have their hands full supporting existing programs, the AmeriCorps members have an entrepreneurial spirit, too. Gabriela and others in her cohort are going above and beyond to meet unaddressed needs in their communities. For example, she’s creating and directing an art and healing program called “ActiveArte.” Another member is designing a program in South Chicago to help veterans navigate a range of health and social service systems.

In addition to their volunteer work, the AmeriCorps members receive specialized training in life and workforce development, like conflict resolution, entrepreneurship and professional etiquette. These trainings are intended to prepare the volunteers for their careers after their service. Gabriela is ahead of the game, as she’s already secured a job with OPEN Center for the Arts.

AmeriCorps members taking a break and sharing a laugh during training.

“I’ve learned leadership skills and my self-confidence is better. The workshops have made me understand the importance of networking,” Gabriela said of the training programs. “The compassion training helped me understand the community I’m working in and to be more empathetic to the community members.”

The United Way of Metro Chicago’s AmeriCorps program began in 2016 and has hosted nearly two dozen volunteers since its initiation. Applications are now open for the next cohort of AmeriCorps members who will begin their tenure in October. Bianca is searching for open-minded, service-oriented individuals who seize opportunities, want to learn and are team players. Visit our careers page for more information. 

If you’d like to help support the work of these devoted volunteers in Chicago’s neighborhoods, donate to United Way of Metro Chicago today. Your dollars will not only benefit residents in need but help shape the future careers of hardworking AmeriCorps volunteers, like Gabriela!

 

College Mentors Prime Brighton Park Students for Success

At the start of the school year, Jesus Alvarez was “going downhill.” His homework went unfinished most nights, his assignments were marked with Ds and Fs and his behavior was disorderly, as he was causing fights and berating teachers.

For many students who grow up in Jesus’s neighborhood of Brighton Park, these behaviors can be signs of the multi-faceted challenges that they’re facing at home – challenges such as poverty, effects of disinvestment in schools, absent or overworked parents, homelessness, neighborhood violence and the pressure of working to provide for their families.

Now, with the guidance of a college mentor, the sophomore at Kelly High School is on his way to successfully completing 10th grade, a feat that seemed far-fetched just a few months ago.

“Thanks to her help, I improved a lot in all of my classes,” said Jesus of his mentor, Elizabeth Fajardo, a junior at St. Xavier University.

Led by the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, or BPNC, the after-school programs at Kelly High aim to improve graduation rates in the southwest suburban neighborhood that is too often categorized by poverty and low education.

BPNC partnered with United Way of Metro Chicago in 2013 to tackle the community’s generational challenges in a holistic way. It set a goal to raise the high school graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020, a goal that is gradually coming to fruition. Graduation rates have improved nearly 10 percent between 2013 and 2016, when 77.8 percent of Brighton Park seniors graduated.

As the lead agency with the Brighton Park Neighborhood Network, BPNC has invested in academic and enrichment programs at six community schools, including Kelly High. Pairing college mentors with more than 200 underserved students is just one way that they’re able to offer learning, social and emotional support.

Most of the students enrolled in the programs didn’t perform well in 7th and 8th grade or have gotten off track multiple times throughout the school year due to behavioral issues or truancy, said Cheryl Flores, BPNC’s director of Community Schools and Youth Services.

“You have a mentor with you to help ensure you end your freshman year on track,” said Cheryl. “We want to make sure you don’t struggle during freshman year because it’s a make it or break it year.”

“Getting individualized support from a college mentor makes a big difference in a struggling student’s ability to pass all their classes and finish their freshman year on track to graduate,” added Patrick Brosnan, executive director of BPNC. 

Some of the programs, like the Leaders of Tomorrow program that addresses tardiness and poor behavior, are specific to the students’ challenges both in and out of school. The mentors assist students with their schoolwork and help to resolve problems with their peers and families. Sometimes, they just strike up a game at the end of the day, to give students a safe space to relax.

Gissel “GiGi” Villenueva, a freshman at Kelly, excessively “ditched” school last year because of bad friends, she said.

“The [mentors] helped me get through all my cuts and helped me bring my grades up. Now all my grades are better — I have Bs and Cs. If you need opportunities to get good grades or anything, you can come down here,” said GiGi of the small BPNC classroom tucked in the basement of Kelly High.

Other programs, like Escalera, prepare juniors and seniors for life after high school.

“We’re typically targeting what would be first-generation college students, not your typical high-achieving junior,” Cheryl said. “Those students are already self-motivated and looking for resources to prepare themselves to get to college. We target students who no one has ever talked to about college, or probably themselves don’t believe that they’re capable of college.”

Freddie Corona has found success through the Escalera program and is currently searching for the school that suits him. Through the program, he has visited three college campuses and learned how to perfect his resume. Freddie hopes to pursue medicine or computer engineering at a local university.

“When I became a junior, I was completely lost, and I joined out of nowhere. It inspired me to motivate myself to keep going,” Freddie said. “It’s kind of like a habit now. I just keep going.”