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!

 

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