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.

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.”