Building Blocks: Youth Learn Life Skills with Legos

“Mr. G — I figured it out!” Courey Harris shouted, as a small car built from Legos and other mechanical parts sped along a large table scattered with colorful block structures.

Courey, a 7th grader at Charles P. Caldwell Middle School, is one of about 15 students who meet twice a week after school to build and program robots in the computer lab of Gary Comer Youth Center, a United Way community partner in Greater Grand Crossing. There, the group of fifth through eighth graders from the South Side Chicago neighborhood learn the building blocks of academic success — critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

On that Monday afternoon, Courey was determined to program his robot car to drive forward and lift its arm attachment. Using a desktop computer program, he created a sequence of motions to download to the robot’s computer.

Mr. Alex Guzinski, technology coordinator at Gary Comer Youth Center, gives instructions to Courey Harris to program his car.

Upon further inspection of Courey’s car, Mr. Alex Guzinski, the center’s technology coordinator, sent him back to the drawing board to tweak his programming. “You’re so close!” Mr. Guzinski said, encouraging Courey.

Robotics Club and Classes Teach Students Critical Skills

Upon arriving at the youth center after school, the students enjoy a snack and then shuffle upstairs to Mr. Guzinski’s basic robotics class, where they work on a range of projects, from robot building and coding to 3-D printing. 

Students especially interested in the program stay after class for Mr.Guzinski’s robotics club. Together, the teammates use a robotics kit of Legos, wires, motors and sensors to design, build and program a robot to compete in local and statewide competitions. The team’s robot must accomplish tasks on a mission map, a large table with structures made from Legos and other parts. To make that happen, the students program the robot to drive, lift, turn, spin and more.

“They’re getting a real boost in practicing problem solving,” Mr. Guzinski said of the skills students acquire in his robotics classes and club. “Something new students struggle with a lot is knowing how to go about solving a problem. Something will go wrong, and they’ll be like, ‘It’s broken. There’s nothing I can do.”

“A lot of what the students have to do is constantly figure out why this isn’t working,” he added. “‘What do we have to do? What do we have to change? What are the ways I have to think about solving this problem?’”

Ajani Clanton researched other designs to get inspiration for his team’s robot.

Last year, when the Gary Comer Youth Center team put their robot to the test, they made it to the state championships. The team, evenly made up of new and returning students, hopes to take home a win again at this year’s qualifying tournament in December. 

In addition to demonstrating their robot, the students will also present a research project about space and accomplish an activity that will require them to show off several core skills, like innovation, inclusion and teamwork.

Though they were at first reserved about sharing their newfound knowledge, the students are enthusiastic about the opportunity to build robots together and compete.

“I really like the fact that I get to build things. I don’t really use the computer at home because it’s old,” said Ajani Clanton, an 8th grader from Gary Comer Middle School, of having access to resources in the computer lab. He’s always taken an interest in engineering, as he looks up to his mom, a bridge inspector.

“You get to meet new people, and it’s fun to work together to create something new,” added Ja’mari Redwood, a 7th grader from Avalon Park Fine & Performing Arts School.

Youth Center Activities Launch Students Into the Future

Opened in 2006, Gary Comer Youth Center stands as a pillar in the South Side Chicago communities of Auburn Gresham, Greater Grand Crossing and South Shore. Nearly 450 students from local middle and high schools participate in classes after school every day until 6 p.m. 

Ja’mari Redwood picks Lego blocks to create an “Alpha Rex” robot during the after-school robotics class.

Activities ranging from culinary and visual arts to civics classes and sports programs expose youth to a range of new skills and opportunities, while providing a safe space for students to congregate until their parents finish the work day. 

Like Gary Comer Youth Center, we at United Way prioritize local students’ academic success. We believe every young person in every neighborhood should have access to high-quality middle school programs and after-school enrichment opportunities. By helping children build a strong foundation in education, we can ensure that kids have the skills to be successful in school and in life.

For Mr. Guzinski’s students, the lessons taught in robotics club aim to do just that. Their lessons in teamwork and problem-solving can be utilized in the students’ everyday lives and will serve as a springboard for their future success in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. 

“[The program] gives them an inside look and head start into actual STEM-based careers,” Mr. Guzinski said. “They’re doing a lot of engineering and coding, but also a lot of research. And they’re following the engineering process, which can be applicable to other kinds of fields, as well.”

Students work to build their robot during the robotics club’s Monday meeting.

Nathan Randall, a 9th grader from Gary Comer College Prep, is a shining example.

Mr. Guzinski’s mentorship in the robotics program is preparing Nathan for his future career in video-game design, while providing him with a fun environment to learn.

“I really like the atmosphere here. Even though we act silly, we get work done,” Nathan said.

In 7th grade, Nathan joined Mr. Guzinski’s basic robotics class. Now, he’s returned to design a fantasy video game and help the younger students, like Courey.

While Nathan plugged away at his coding his game, Courey, still determined to make his robot move forward and lift its arm, sat across the room brainstorming how to correct his robot’s programming.

“Why is it turning?” he groaned loudly after another failed attempt. “I gotta figure it out!”

On his sixth try, he returned to the mission table with a grin. “Look! I did it, Mr. G. Look!” he exclaimed as the robot’s wheels squealed forward and its arm raised.

Mission accomplished.

Youth Summer Jobs Program on WGN

United Way South-Southwest partnered with the Cook County Justice Advisory Council to support youth employment opportunities for south suburban Cook county teens. Over 200 kids in the program worked with the Forest Preserves of Cook County and participated in a variety of interesting tasks. Program participants, Cook County Board President, Toni Preckwinkle, and Wendy DuBoe were interviewed about the program by WGN’s Erik Runge. Youth enrichment and job development span United Way’s issue areas and programs like this are core of our mission and we are proud of the success of the program and of the participants!

United Way North-Northwest & The Goulden Touch Host “Strike Gould” to Benefit Palatine Opportunity Center

Robbie & Bears Offensive lineman James Brown

Tuesday, November 12, United Way North-Northwest and Chicago Bears Kicker Robbie Gould’s public charity, The Goulden Touch, teamed up to bring much-needed resources to Chicago’s Northwest Suburbs with a “Strike Gould” bowling event benefiting the Palatine Opportunity Center.

The bowling tournament, hosted at Pinstripes in Northbrook, brought together corporations, individuals and groups from around Chicagoland. Participating companies included Allstate, Big Tuna Marketing, CBOE Holdings, Deloitte, Discover, Fox, Swibel, Levin & Carroll LLP, Littler Mendelson, Meltzer, Purtill & Stelle, LLC, Reed Smith, Thermoflex, Weltman Bernfield LLC, and Wintrust Financial. United Way North-Northwest’s Young Leaders Society and board members also took to the lanes to show their support.

The $60,000+ raised from “Strike Gould” benefited programming at the Palatine Opportunity Center, an organization connecting underserved residents in the Northwest Suburban area to services and resources in an effort to build a community of empowered people, healthy families and vibrant neighborhoods.

Check out photos from the event.

United Way Worldwide Disaster Rebuilding Fund Activated to Support Communities Affected by Typhoon in the Philippines

United Way and its partners need your help to rebuild lives and communities in the Philippines. Your contribution to The United Way Worldwide Disaster Rebuilding Fund will support long-term rebuilding and recovery efforts. Your generosity is critical to this process, and we thank you for all of your support. To make a contribution, please visit

Bike to Work Week 2013

United Way staff getting prepared for Bike to Work Week 2013

United Way staff getting prepared for Bike to Work Week 2013

A little more than a year ago, commuting to work by bike seemed like a really great, healthy, money-saving, green idea-for other people, that is. But me actually biking downtown? That sounded, well, terrifying.

A year later, I now bike almost every day, to almost everywhere I go. I’m never quite sure which reason to name first when I’m asked why I bike -because it’s fun and fast, because I like to get out my door and go, because I automatically get my exercise in, because it’s free, etc. – but getting to this point was no small step for me.

Part of that feat was personally overcoming my fears, but there were some really helpful external factors too. Here at UWMC, I’ve enjoyed the support of my co-workers, and the thumbs-up and way-to-go’s gave me a lot of encouragement, especially when I first got started. UWMC’s involvement last year in the Bike Commuter Challenge provided space for me to learn more about biking to work, and connect with other like-minded folks-both the regular and the tentative/occasional bike-commuters. In fact, it was during the Bike Commuter Challenge week that I biked 5 workdays in a row for the first time-including a UW event in the Loop itself. I’d strolled around neighborhoods and I’d made it to our former office on the edge of the Loop, but heading into the heart of the Loop was my final biking frontier. (And now my fear hasn’t vanished just because of habit and skill– with more protected lanes in the Loop, it’s become way more bike-friendly!) And once I realized I could do it and felt good about it€¦ why stop?

Riding my bike, I feel healthier, and I’ve gotten to know my community in new and wonderful ways. I want to spread that great feeling, and I’m excited that UWMC is again participating in the Bike Commuter Challenge this year (June 8-14). Whether it’s one trek to work or a daily routine, get out on those two wheels and enjoy the Chicago summer!

Submitted on behalf of Shira Saliman, Manager of Community Investment Operations and Evaluation at United Way of Metropolitan Chicago. 

Third Annual Tribune/United Way Golf Outing Takes Philanthropy to the Links


Last month, Tribune Company held its third annual Tribune/United Way Golf Outing, raising over $24,000 for United Way of Metropolitan Chicago. The day began with roughly 100 golfers taking to the links and ended with a dinner and auction involving a live Blackhawks painting by Artbeat Live!

Golfers participated in friendly competitions while on the course, including a wager hole, closest to the pin and longest putt. At hole 8 they were greeted by Tribune Publishing and Chicago Tribune CEO, Tony Hunter, who showed his support for United Way by participating in a “Beat the Boss” closest to the pin contest.

United Way of Metropolitan Chicago would like to thank the Tribune for its long-standing partnership and commitment to providing the resources needed to help build self-sufficiency through creating practical solutions addressing challenges in the areas of education, income and health in the Chicagoland area.

United Way of Metropolitan Chicago would also like to thank A Marketing Resource, Alvarez & Marsal, American Litho, FujiFilm, Turn-Key Solutions and Giordano’s for sponsoring the Tribune/United Way Golf Outing.

June Volunteer Action

This month United Ways across the country are making their mark by hosting volunteer events to help advance the building blocks of self-sufficiency: Education, Income and Health.

2013 marks the 6th annual United Way Day of Action and we are using this day to not just highlight a single month of action, but use it as a launching pad for ongoing engagement. If we can mobilize almost 700 volunteers in June alone, imagine the possibilities for Chicagoland year-round.

United Way of Metropolitan Chicago would like to show the community how some of Chicago’s corporate partners contribute to a larger network of volunteers across the country during this single month of action.

Thank you to Accenture,  American Agricultural Insurance Company, AT&T, BlueCross BlueShield, BMO Financial Group, Deloitte, Dow Chemical, Mesirow Financial, Nielsen, Northern Trust, Performics, True Value Company, and Zurich North America for lending their muscle this month. Below are descriptions of various projects supporting United Way Partner Agencies.



Early June, Mesirow Financial will beautify the grounds of Burroughs Elementary supporting United Way’s newly launched LIVE UNITED Neighborhood Network in Brighton Park. As a supporter of this initiative, Mesirow is further focusing its resources by targeting volunteer efforts here, creating a deeper and lasting impact.

On June 7, as part of their national volunteer day, Performics will partner with United Way to mobilize over 200 volunteers. They will participate in a variety of projects that support agencies that specialize in education programming and financial stability.

  • 30 volunteers will set up the Fun day for school-age youth (last day of programming); prepping for Summer Fun, landscaping, updating bulletin boards, etc with Chicago Youth Centers at their Elliott Donnelly Youth Center.
  • 150 volunteers will deep clean, paint, garden and tutor youth at three different YMCA locations across Chicagoland. These facilities host educational programming for youth after school and during the summer.
  • 30 volunteers will shelve books, audio disks, and work with adults and children who are blind or visually impaired at Chicago Lighthouse.

Saturday, June 8, United Way will send 25 volunteers from our Young Leaders Society to paint Marshall High School in a Chicago community of greatest need. These young philanthropic leaders are supporting education by ensuring children have a safe and clean environment to learn.

June 13, 25 Nielson volunteers will support children, teachers, and faculty through tutoring and various needs, including painting and administrative support, truly helping asses and meet a number of different needs this agency has in one day.

June 28, 40 Accenture volunteers will chaperon summer day camp at Youth Crossroads in Berwyn, playing games and leading educational workshops. This promotes active learning for youth over the summer.



June 4, United Way has paired with American Agricultural Insurance Company to beautify Countryside Association’s exterior. Over the course of a few days, 15 volunteers will paint, mulch, and garden, helping support the financial stability work this agency does every day. Through their volunteer efforts, this new business is looking forward to building a strong relationship with United Way

June 5, United Way’s Young Leaders Society (YLS) is conducting mock interviews for Erie Neighborhood House for clients in their Workforce Development Program. This is the second time YLS has participated, prepping over 25 clients for permanent placement in the job market.

The week of June 5, BMO Financial Group will be mobilizing over 150 volunteers to support a United Way Partner Agency which helps its clients gain financial stability. Volunteers can participate in four different projects:

  • Volunteers will paint client counseling rooms to provide a welcoming environment.
  • Volunteers will collect, organize, sort, and deliver women’s professional clothes to empower them for upcoming job interviews.
  • Volunteers will assemble “Starter Kits” for domestic abuse survivor victims getting back on their feet.
  • Volunteers will conduct mock phone interviews to job seekers who use this agency’s Community Career Center. Each call lasts one hour, 30 minutes for a mock interview and another 30 minutes for interviewer feedback and suggestions.

June 6, As part of their Global Community Week, Zurich will run its second annual Volunteer Fest and Skillshare Summit in Schaumburg. A shining example of skills-based volunteering, non-profits are invited to attend various capacity building workshops run by Zurich employees. These include:

  • The Power of Networking,
  • The Recipe for Working with a Corporate Volunteer Group,
  • Navigating the World of Social Media,
  • Learning How to Plan for Today’s Talent Demands.

On June 21, Dow Chemical will partner with Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired; purchasing supplies for a project to complete with 20 volunteer and adult clients, helping ultimately build social skills necessary for every day life and career success.



On June 1, 8, 9, & 23, 40 BlueCross BlueShield volunteers will partner with United Way to support agencies with health programming. As a health insurance company, BlueCross BlueShield of Illinois sends the bulk of their employee volunteers to health-related agencies by serving and distributing food. Volunteers will:

  • Help distribute food items to community members in need at Loaves and Fishes.
  • Act as cooks and servers for clients at Living Room Cafe.
  • Act as cooks and servers for clients at Inspiration Cafe.
  • Help sort and distribute food to community members where there is little-to-no access to fresh produce.

June 6, 40 Deloitte volunteers will volunteer with United Way as part of their National Impact Day. This project will consist of outdoor beautification and landscaping at the McCormick Tribune YMCA. This United Way Partner Agency sits on a very large piece of property with lots of flower beds and areas requiring weeding, clean-out, and maintenance.

Over the course of June 6  and 25, 50 Northern Trust volunteers will sort and organize food in the warehouse and package individual food boxes for distribution to the Mother & Child Nutrition Program and the Senior Citizens Supplemental Food Program.

June 13, 15 AT&T Women of Finance mentoring group volunteers will do a mix of painting and interacting with the summer day campers supporting active summer lifestyles at Indian Boundary YMCA.

June 28, 12 True Value volunteers will play games, arts & crafts, read, and participate in light physical activities with the Head Start youth education programs supported by United Way.

June 20, 15 Zurich volunteers are working with a Chicago Public School to help with their annual field day. This activity supports United Way’s Health Initiative as they will help with games, activities and healthy snacks.

If you would like to get involved in June Action this year or next year, please contact Kristen Johnson, Volunteer Engagement Coordinator at United Way of Metropolitan Chicago, 312.906.2496,

Thank You to Our Volunteers!


In recognition of  National Volunteer Week,  United Way  thanks  our more than  4,000 volunteers  who helped improve the education, income, and health of our communities in 2012. By lending a hand, you show us all what it means to  LIVE UNITED.

This week especially, we want to  thank the individuals, families, corporate partners, nonprofit agencies and community leaders who dedicate not just their dollars, but their time, to help support our community-impact plan, LIVE UNITED 2020.  United Way volunteers are critical to achieving LIVE UNITED 2020 by helping us transform communities of greatest need across our six-county footprint. We know that change won’t happen without them. Their time, talent and resources are essential to the on-the-ground work our communities need to make this plan a reality. In fact, more than 4,000 United Way volunteers saved our partner agencies $350,000 through  15,000 donated hours in 2012 alone.

Whatever your talents are, you can use them  to change the story for children and families across Chicagoland. Join volunteers already making a  meaningful difference in our community –  find a volunteer opportunity today!