Corporations: A Surprising Leader in Community Impact?

Since the inception of Chicago Rises, we’ve told the stories of many organizations and people making a difference in the city. A large percentage of those folks naturally are involved in nonprofits. When people think of entities making positive impact in society, nonprofits and social enterprises first come to mind. We at Chicago Rises want to explore all players in Chicago that contribute to a better world. This includes corporations which can possess the resources to make significant and lasting impact on our communities.

Last month, we sat down with Relativity, a leader in the e-discovery sector and a fast growing technology firm in Chicago, to learn how they give back. Story coming soon!

Making Tech accessible at The Difference Engine

Making Tech accessible at The Difference Engine

As technology and software become an indispensable part of our lives, the demand for skilled people to work in this sector continues to skyrocket. For those looking to start new careers in software, it can be intimidating to obtain a computer science degree. Recently, the rise of development boot camps and online courses have opened the doors to more people trying to enter the tech field. But even then, there are still considerable challenges for these people to convince tech companies to hire them since they don’t have real world experience. That is where The Difference Engine comes in to help.

The Difference Engine was born out of the experience and passion of Kimberly Lowe-Williams. As a young child, she knew she wanted to be involved with computers in some capacity. Lowe Williams pursued the use of computers in high school and naturally went on to major in computer science in college. In her first computer science class, she realized how difficult software development was and how it is truly a collaborative effort. Life took her away from computer science for a while, but Lowe-Williams’ passion for it never diminished. When programming courses started becoming more readily available online, she started getting back to pursuing her interests around software development. She discovered a development boot camp called Actualize and went through that program. After completing the program, Lowe-Williams started applying to development jobs and encountered another barrier in landing a job.

Tech companies were still skeptical that dev boot camp graduates had the necessary skills to build applications and software since they did not go through the traditional 4-year computer science path. They wanted more experience in these graduates. Lowe-Williams explains “There needs to be additional support after people finished the boot camp because a few months can pass where you are not getting a job and you’re not coding and you’re not building your skills and skills do atrophy”. The time gap makes it difficult for applicants to pass coding challenges and to articulate what they have learned in an interview. This was an issue that Lowe-Williams wanted to solve. She is passionate about making tech more accessible since she experienced how tech enabled her as a girl from a small town in Northwest Indiana to make a living and support her family. Also while volunteering as an adult, she saw the challenges nonprofits faced that could be addressed by technology, but these organizations didn’t have the resources or funding to take advantage of tech solutions. “Technology was changing the world and people who can most benefit from it are locked out”, recalled Lowe-Williams.

The Difference Engine solves problems for two groups that have needs. On one hand, you have aspiring software developers who have dedicated time and effort to change their careers, but are encountering challenges in showing prospective employers they have real world skills and experience to do the job. On the other hand, there are numerous nonprofit organizations that are trying to change the world, but many operate inefficiently and don’t have resources to use technology to help them. Lowe-Williams used her background working in technology companies to create an apprenticeship for the boot camp graduates to simulate an actual software work environment where a product is delivered. In this case, the product can be a website or application built for nonprofits to help carry out their mission. “The apprenticeship is a safe way to transition from one career to the next and keep growing, keep coding,” said Lowe-Williams. It also provides an environment to help participants determine if they indeed want to go into tech careers. “The true heart in the mission is to make tech accessible. The reason tech is not accessible is because how much it costs. To make tech accessible we have to keep the cost no to low. That is one of the reasons why we are a nonprofit to keep us mission first.” With this approach to eliminate the barrier of cost, The Difference Engine can support the large number of people trying to enter the tech world.

The process of the program starts with an applicant submitting a letter of interest to join the team as an apprentice. A phone screen or face-to-face meeting follows. Another method to inquire is to attend one of the info sessions. Once an applicant is accepted, a technical assessment is done by the volunteer staff so they can place people on the appropriate project based on their skill and experience level. Lowe-Williams said they will not reject anyone that qualifies, but that there may be a waiting list depending on the number of projects that need to be staffed. One requirement of the 17 week program is that you need to be actively looking for a job. This serves as a motivator and confidence builder for the apprentices.

The process for nonprofits/social enterprises is similar in requesting help to do a project. They would email The Difference Engine with details on the project and the organization must have no or low revenue. They also must have an open time frame since The Difference Engine can be constrained by the number of available developers. Requested projects must be new code (not fixing an existing site for example) and open to The Difference Engine determining the type of technology best to deliver the project. The goal is to building a minimum viable product (MVP) to solve business problems for the nonprofit or social enterprise.

The biggest challenge The Difference Engine faces is getting more funding and sponsorship so they can provide more nonprofit projects for apprentices to work on and help the program become more sustainable. As with many startups and nonprofits, building a team of advocates and board members and network is also a necessity to succeed. Another challenge Lowe-Williams pointed out was to break down biases toward non-traditional software development candidates. Many tech companies filter out non-traditional resumes, so many people with high potential are left struggling to find jobs. So working with startups to diversify at conception versus trying to change views on this bias later is ideal. Partnering with good companies that believe in their mission and developing a pipeline of volunteers that understand the challenges facing these non-traditional applicants will help remove these biases and lead to more successful job placements.

During her journey so far, Lowe-Williams feels giving a voice to people trying to get into tech is one of the proudest accomplishments of The Difference Engine. Many of the apprentices didn’t have knowledge of technology or what a developer was only a short time ago. “They were working in manufacturing, were construction workers, guitar instructors, Uber drivers, moms, former nannies, and there’s been quite a few people who now have had their lives transformed.” She said these people’s children now know what a developer is and with this exposure to tech, can see the field as an option for a future career. These stories and impact fuels Lowe-Williams and The Difference Engine to support others to make that leap.

CALL TO ACTION

There are several ways to help The Difference Engine keep running and making an impact.

  • Join as a technical (Product Owners, Dev Leads) or admin volunteer to be part of the team supporting the apprenticeship program
  • Donate to help support more nonprofit projects for apprentices to work on
  • As a nonprofit looking for development work to aid their cause, submit a project request!
  • Volunteer as a board member! Applicants with nonprofit and fundraising backgrounds are especially needed.
Chicago Rises on Founder Stories

Chicago Rises on Founder Stories

Recently we collaborated with the platform Founder Stories to share what we do here at Chicago Rises. It was the first time I remember doing a video interview, so I admit it was a bit awkward at first talking straight into the camera. But I was able to quickly loosen up and really enjoy the interview. It was a great experience and hopefully I was able to articulate Chicago Rises’ mission to viewers. We’re always looking to collaborate and partner with other organizations to help lift each other up.

Thanks Founder Stories for sharing our story!

Good Food, Good Company, Good Cause: Soup and Bread’s 10th Season Is Underway

Good Food, Good Company, Good Cause: Soup and Bread’s 10th Season Is Underway

Winter break ushered in temperatures in the single digits and the days of below-zero windchills have carried into the new year. The January cold may be an indication of dark winter days and cabin fever yet to come, but it also marks the return of a beloved Chicago tradition: Soup and Bread at The Hideout.

In a major metropolitan area like Chicago, a chance to bump elbows with your neighbors and break bread together in a small, cozy setting may sound like a vestige of a bygone era, but every Wednesday through March, Soup and Bread serves as an opportunity for community members to do just that. Each week volunteer chefs bring a soup—and plenty of it—to share with anyone who cares to drop by. Partakers pay a donation in an amount of their choosing and then enjoy the offerings of the day, along with delicious bread donated by Publican Quality Bread. All proceeds are donated to local nonprofits combating hunger in Chicago, like the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

Call to Action

We all know that heavy winter feeling that beckons us inside, shielding us from the harsh elements right beyond our doors. But summon the intrepid winter traveler within you (you know you have one if you live here) and check out Soup and Bread, which kicked off its tenth season this week at The Hideout. Sample some outstanding food (with vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options often available), enjoy some camaraderie with your fellow Chicagoans, and support important causes that serve Chicago’s most vulnerable citizens. You’ll be glad you did.

Fancy yourself quite the cook? Consider making a pot of your favorite soup for Soup and Bread this season! Email soupnbread10@gmail.com to get in touch with the organizers.

Raising the Next Generation of Givers

Raising the Next Generation of Givers

You’re never too young to learn the importance of giving back, and Families Helping Families Chicagoland [FHFC] knows it.

Families Helping Families Chicagoland aims to improve the lives of low income families and foster children in the Chicagoland area. The charity collaborates with different social service agencies, homeless shelters, and schools to find needs they can help fulfill. To meet those needs, they hold monthly donation collections, sponsor foster children for their birthdays, and host hands-on events. These events give children opportunities to immerse themselves in the idea of giving back.

Families Helping Families Chicagoland started with founder and president Amy Newman four years ago. Inspired by her mother, a woman who was all about giving back, Newman wanted to find a way to help kids for the holidays. She began collecting donations, and with the help of others, was able to help 200 kids all from her own home.

Since then, Families Helping Families has grown, now complete with its own board of directors, and even a junior board. All 12 board members are volunteers and actively involved in pick-ups, drop-offs and running events. The junior board helps to plan and spread the word about events.

“Getting children involved is very important to FHFC. We feel that giving back is something to be modeled, so our children see it as [a necessity], not just a choice,” Newman said.

With four years under her belt, Newman has enjoyed watching all kinds of people come together to make a difference. The most rewarding part is “seeing the relief on people’s faces” and knowing that they’ve helped make hard times a little easier.

Call to Action

Want to get involved?

  • Visit FHFC’s facebook page to find info about their events and volunteer opportunities.
  • Visit their website to find out how to donate.
Matchmakers for Donations

Matchmakers for Donations

It’s that item sitting in your closet gathering dust. Or you find it hidden in a drawer or your garage. Many of us have items in our home that we no longer need. The best option in most cases is to donate the item so it can be re-used. But have you ever wondered if your donation will go to a person or home with the most need?

Fortunately there is a platform that can help with this predicament. GiveNkind directly connects individual donors with 501(c)(3) registered nonprofits to make this donation process more personal and purposeful. I had the chance to meet giveNkind’s founder, Emily Petway, to learn more about their mission.

Petway’s journey to founding giveNkind began in Atlanta. As a music teacher in Atlanta, she learned that some of her students were not able to afford dresses to attend formal dances such as prom. Unwilling to accept this situation, Petway eventually founded the Greater Atlanta chapter of Becca’s Closet, a national, non-profit organization that donates formal dresses to high school girls who cannot afford to purchase them. During her time as a volunteer manager of this chapter, she discovered how much material goods are needed by nonprofits to operate. In cases of small nonprofits, being able to afford these goods is not feasible and can threaten their ability to carry out their mission. For Becca’s Closet, not only did they need prom dresses, but they needed items like clothing racks, mirrors, and chairs among other things. When Petway narrowly missed out on securing a donated lawnmower to help keep the grass in front of their building up to city code, she knew there needed to be a system for donations to be re-purposed for only nonprofits. Determined to solve this social problem, Petway’s idea for giveNkind was born.

The giveNkind platform is straightforward and free to anyone that registers. Once a donor signs up on the site, they can post a list of what the items they have to donate. On the other side, a nonprofit can also post a list of goods they would like to request after signing up. In addition, the nonprofit can explain how the items will impact their organization and communities. “A donor list is available to be seen by nonprofits and a nonprofit list can be seen by donors, so the connection is authentic and direct,” Petway said. That direct connection is important so the actual donation matches are not determined by a third party system, but instead by the two involved parties.

I was able to experience the process through giveNkind first hand when my family needed to donate some baby clothes, detailed here in my story about Cradles to Crayons. According to Petway, my experience is the ideal one in the their system, explaining “We’re of course hoping the item fulfills the need and allows them to extend their reach, but now you’ve entered their circle of volunteerism and potential donors, so that’s expanding not only the nonprofit’s reach but their base of support and that’s awesome!” The goal of fostering these direct connections is for people to get involved in another organization by joining their volunteer base and donating, which can result in reoccurring gifts without giveNkind’s involvement.

Petway’s mission for giveNkind is to grow a community of giving. “We believe everybody has something they can give, even if it’s not money, it’s something that isn’t being used or it’s being underutilized,” Petway said. “It’s some item that’s been misplaced in your home and actually belongs somewhere else.” GiveNkind’s model focuses on the individual donor and enabling them to make the most impact, which results in nonprofits being more productive. Instead of using energy to find things they need, nonprofits can use that energy to focus on servicing others.

The giveNkind platform launched in April of this year, so they are in an early adoption phase while trying to create more awareness of the platform. A couple of challenges that surprised Petway when talking to nonprofits about giveNkind were related to what can be posted and the free cost. She wants to convince nonprofits to post requests for more than the obvious and that they can literally ask for anything they need. As for the free cost, it takes skeptical nonprofits some time to understand that giveNkind is indeed completely free. Petway feels a growing system with more participants will address these issues and earn the trust of nonprofits going forward.

It is amazing that giveNkind is operating with a 100% volunteer base. They have volunteers all over the country, which requires them to meet virtually. A large portion of the team are software developers. For them, being able to give back in way that leverages their skill set is enticing. Petway believes that their structure so far is sustainable because of the low overhead and that they are all volunteers. This fact also gives them credibility in the eyes of nonprofits since giveNkind is a nonprofit itself and not making money off their platform.

The proudest accomplishments so far with giveNkind, Petway said, are the experiences of dropping off donations and seeing someone shopping and using those items. She recalled a time when they dropped off a couch and later found out that it was used by a woman going through a very difficult time in her life. In addition to the donations, Petway also gets to meet and learn about giveNkind’s nonprofit partners and their selfless work. Seeing the impact and gratitude directly is very rewarding, Petway shared.

During our conversation, it is easy to feel the energy and passion that Petway exudes about helping others and furthering nonprofits’ missions. She has a refreshing perspective on how helping others is bigger than any individual and organization. On multiple occasions, Petway said it would be great if people used giveNkind to donate. But if people don’t use them, she encourages others to still use other organizations and take action to make a positive impact.

 

Call to Action

There are several ways one can make a difference with giveNkind.

  • Have something to donate and looking to make a connection to a great cause? Then register as a donor and make an impact with your donation.
  • Are you a nonprofit looking for items that can help your organization better serve your community? Then register as a nonprofit and share the list of items you need so you can meet wonderful donors that could potentially become future supporters of your mission.
  • Are you a software developer looking to give back by using your skills in technology? GiveNkind would love to have your expertise to make their platform even better and to help bring some great ideas to fruition.
  • To contact giveNkind directly, please email epetway@givenkind.org or call 847-802-8977
  • Here’s some parting advice from Petway that resonates: “You have a skill that can benefit someone in the community or organization. Don’t underestimate your ability to affect change. Someone can do anything, however small, to start a chain reaction. Don’t not start because you’re afraid what you’re doing isn’t big enough. Start. Do something. You never know what your impact will be and what that will lead to.”
How Chicago Rises is Rising

How Chicago Rises is Rising

Hello Chicago!

The team has been discussing recently how we can better communicate and engage with our fellow Chicagoans. We want to have an open line of communication going both ways. First, how can we let you know what we’re doing to improve Chicago Rises to best serve you and our communities? This is the purpose of this blog, to inform you of what we’re thinking and doing at Chicago Rises. Then secondly and most importantly, how can we get your feedback and engage you better? Our goal is to connect and rise together in a wave of inspiration and collaboration.

Here at Chicago Rises, we embrace the concept of experimenting. This is a great way to learn and create things that we as a team, and hopefully you as a Chicagoan, value. With that, we are introducing a couple of new features to the site:

  • Riser of the Month: We recently posted about our first Riser of the Month: Justin Cabrera. The idea around this is to put a spotlight on someone in our communities doing amazing work to positively impact others. If you would like to nominate someone, please send them our way!
  • Events: As we meet and hopefully build relationships with the organizations we highlight on Chicago Rises, we want a forum to share their events to allow others to connect and support them. The Events calendar will help our readers and followers find ways to take initiative and answer that Call to Action.

So please look for future postings here from the Chicago Rises team. As always, we would love to hear from you. Talk soon!

Riser of the Month: Justin Cabrera

Riser of the Month: Justin Cabrera

Every time we post an article here at Chicago Rises, we make sure to include a call to action – we want readers to engage with the community and help in any way they can. And we want to show that anyone can volunteer and improve this beautiful city.

So, we decided to talk to one outstanding Chicago citizen each month, and ask them how they got to this point. Hopefully, their stories will inspire others to follow their steps and give back to the community.

 

Meet Justin

Our Riser of December is Justin Cabrera, a senior at Loyola University Chicago. Justin dedicates at least one day of every week to volunteer with The Labre Ministry, a student-led homeless outreach. They prepare food for the homeless and go to multiple Chicago neighborhoods to distribute it. But most importantly, they make sure they connect with whomever they are helping – they sit with the people, chat with them, hang out for a bit and give them food. Justin’s outstanding engagement through the past four years led to a leadership position – but how did he first get involved with Labre? Fortunately, I got the chance to interview him and find more about his experience in Chicago.

 

Interview

How did you decide to join Labre? “My freshman year I actually got into a little bit of trouble, and the school asked me what I wanted to do throughout my years here in Loyola. I said I wanted to get involved in community service, so I started to go to Labre and it was great. I did this type of service back home, and I wanted to keep doing it in Loyola, it just so happens that it kind of fell into my hands unexpectedly, like a blessing in disguise. And if you ask other Labre leaders, many of them will tell similar stories – that it started as mandatory community service, but they kept doing it.”

Why do you keep going? “When I started I went every week almost, and even after I fulfilled my hours I thought wait, I really like this, so I kept going. Going into my sophomore year they offered me a leadership role. It was cool because now I could actually lead other students and have a final saying in some decisions in the organization.”

Do you think celebrating what you have is important? “Before we go out, I always tell my group to think about what we have and what these people don’t have, because it provides them with more perspective. Remembering how lucky we are, and being aware of it is something we should celebrate.”

What is your favorite quote? “I can do all things, through Christ who strengthens me.”

If you could teach any subject, what would you teach? “Sports. I would want to coach, and be a tutor on the side. There is a lot we learn on the field that we can apply to real life.”

If you could pass a message to a large group of people, what would it be? “Be present in the moment and don’t take things for granted. We have busy lives and sometimes we forget to stop and just worry about what is going on right now, rather than what we did in the past or what we are going to do in the future. So, I always try to focus on the present. When we are out with Labre in a circle, talking to one of the people on the streets, we try to be in that moment and listen to what they have to say. We might think that we are doing them a favor and changing their lives, but in fact they are changing ours.”

 

Call to action

Got inspired? If you are a student at Loyola University Chicago you can always join Labre during one of their weekly outings through the organization’s website.

If you do not attend Loyola, but still want to help feed the homeless, there are many other volunteering opportunities across the city. For instance, Chicago Rises has attended the monthly HashtagLunchbag events, where you can put together lunch bags in a super fun environment! To learn more or to RSVP to an upcoming event you can access their website or their Facebook page. Also, check our events tab to see if there are any upcoming events that you can join.

Giving Kids the Essentials to Succeed

Giving Kids the Essentials to Succeed

As the weather turns colder in Chicago, many of us start taking out our winter clothes from storage or look to purchase new gear to stay warm. Unfortunately, there are kids in Chicago that don’t have this luxury. In fact, many children don’t even have the basic essentials in any season, let alone warm jackets and clothes for the winter. Almost 200,000 children in Chicago live in poverty, which is a staggering number. For Cradles to Crayons, their mission is to help make life better for these children in need by providing them the essentials they need to thrive.

I was recently connected to Cradles to Crayons because my family had some baby clothes to donate. We wanted to make sure that the donated clothes went to a cause or organization that will ensure the items reached kids who would need them most. Fortunately we found giveNkind, a nonprofit that helps connect donors with organizations needing the donations, which matched us with Cradles to Crayons. After dropping off the bags of donations at their facility on the northwest side of the city, the staff was kind enough to give me a tour of “The Giving Factory” and explain what they do there. The Giving Factory houses Cradles to Crayons’ local business and volunteer operations. The organization’s mission inspired me to learn more. In fact, I signed up to volunteer at The Giving Factory and also had a great opportunity to sit down and talk with their executive director, Bernard Cherkasov.

For many people, a single event can inspire and have a positive impact on the direction of their life. For Cherkasov, that was the case when he was a young child. “I have a vivid memory of being 9 years old and us receiving a box of boots and coats for us. I remember the sense of going to school the next day, wearing my brand new coat and feeling so excited that there are people in this world who really cared for us and really wanted us to do well,” he recalled. Years later after studying law in college and then working as an attorney, he saw a chance to become more hands-on in nonprofit and to be part of the change that he wanted to see in the world. The first opportunity that convinced Cherkasov that nonprofit was where he needed to be, was at Equality Illinois, whose mission is to secure, protect and defend the civil rights of LGBTQ Illinoisans, which he led for 7 years. But his memory as a child receiving services similar to what Cradles to Crayons provides stayed with him. “When I heard that Cradles to Crayons was looking to expand to Chicago I knew this was my mission and I wanted to be part of it,” he said.

Cradles to Crayons was originally started in Boston and the Chicago location opened in August 2016. Since that time, the Chicago branch has served 49,000 children (from birth to age 12) and looks to expand that impact even more. With just over a year of operation in Chicago, Cradles to Crayons has worked hard to get a foothold in the city and gain the trust of the community that their work is reaching the kids in need. For Cherkasov, getting established in a new city and gaining that trust of volunteers, donors, and the community has been one of the top achievements of the organization so far. The organization realized its impact was working when they noticed many returning volunteers and referrals. Running The Giving Factory to serve thousands of kids and building a strong base of volunteers and donors is hard work, so it’s incredible that Cradles to Crayons Chicago currently only has 13 staff members! Bernard said this speaks to the importance of the army of volunteers and generosity of the community in their mission.

The Giving Factory

When I volunteered at The Giving Factory a couple of weeks ago, I could feel the impact I had as an individual and how the organization empowers their volunteers to embrace the mission. The Giving Factory is a large warehouse and when you step inside you immediately see the vast amounts of donated material, which include clothes, shoes, backpacks, books, diapers, strollers and an assortment of baby items. Even though there was a tremendous amount of items stacked everywhere, the warehouse was neatly organized in stations.

The process of taking a donated item and getting it to its final form as a kid pack is purposefully detailed to make it as efficient as possible. The first step is to fill out a note with a positive message using markers and crayons for a recipient of one of the kid packs. Then you are directed to a station that the volunteer coordinator deems as a high priority for that day and time. For example, I helped sort clothes into different bins by age and gender and also ensured the clothes were of high quality. There are motivational quotes posted all over the facility that inspire you as you work. One quote in particular resonated with me: “Quality = Dignity”, which is central to Cradles to Crayons approach. Donations are required to be new or nearly new condition before they are delivered to a child. To these children, receiving items that are new helps support their dignity, which is so important.

When I asked Cherkasov who the main beneficiaries of Cradles to Crayons’ services are, his answer opened my eyes to the actual impact of their organization. “I feel we benefit all of Chicago,” he responded. Aside from the Chicagoland kids they serve by providing high quality essentials, Cherkasov explained that the volunteers experience a transformation as well. “Chicagoans that can contribute and volunteer, it is a transformative experience because every moment you spend in The Giving Factory, sorting products for quality, or cleaning toys, or putting together outfits, or customizing the kid pack orders, you know that you’re adding purpose to your own life.” Cherkasov pointed out this transformation is especially important when kids are volunteering and providing these services for another kid. He recounted a story of a little girl who volunteered with her family at The Giving Factory. When the volunteering session was over, the girl asked if she could stay longer. When her mother told her they needed to go, the girl asked if she could come back another time with her friends and possibly even host her birthday party at The Giving Factory. The mother was moved to tears to hear her daughter speak those words.

Volunteering for two hours next to a group of students from a local high school and college students from Northwestern University, I saw how people from all walks of life can band together to make a difference. But most importantly, seeing those students sorting through the donated clothes to ensure the clothes were in good condition, you can see young people comprehending how simple things like having nice clothes that fit could impact a child. Watching the future of our society giving back was pretty amazing.

Call to Action

There are many ways to make an impact with Cradles to Crayons. Check out their Take Action page to see how you can make a difference. Whether you’re donating goods or money, spreading the word, or volunteering at The Giving Factory, your efforts will directly impact a child’s life immediately. To see examples of the impact that volunteers can have, here are some sunshine stories from the grateful families and kids.

Spread your love through coats and warmth

Spread your love through coats and warmth

Winter is coming, and everyone can feel it. Learn how you can help Chicago warm up with the help of Button and Zipper!

Temperatures are dropping in Chicago, which means it’s time to turn on the heater, make a hot chocolate and snuggle under the blankets.

However, for the thousands of homeless people living in the Chicago area, that won’t be possible. Homelessness and poverty affect Chicago year-round, but they need special attention during this season.

Thankfully, some Chicagoans dedicate their days to making sure no one is cold this winter. One of them is Nancy, also known as Ira’s mom, the cofounder of Button and Zipper.

I interviewed her during the October event of HashtagLunchbag, where she collected winter coats. We decided to have a chat on the balcony – we were wearing no jackets and it was 32 degrees outside. It really put the whole issue into perspective.

Her son, Ira, lives in Denver, so Button and Zipper operates in both cities. When asked about how the organization came to be, Nancy said that Ira grew up in Chicago, watching her give back to the community, which influenced him to come up with the Button and Zipper idea.

One of their main goals is to “help kids make it”. For instance, one of their projects, Dress Up The Grad, aims to support at risk high school students for graduation. Still, right now they focused on helping everyone that needs winter coats. Ira’s mom mentioned that Button and Zipper is currently working on multiple new projects, and as it grows hopefully the word will keep spreading and we’ll keep hearing about their programs and their impact on the city.

Right now, Button and Zipper works as the middleman, partnering with different agencies to organize coat drives and then take donations to whoever needs it. If you want to donate winter coats, receive donated coats, or learn more about what they do, contact them directly.

Call to action

If you are ready to donate, check their drop-off locations and see which one is most convenient to you!

Thank you, Button and Zipper, for talking to us about your amazing organization, and we urge all our readers to take some time this month to separate winter coats that you don’t wear anymore. That old jacket thrown in the back of your closet can be someone’s light at the end of the tunnel.

 

Photo by Blake Lisk on Unsplash

A Safe Space at Broadway Youth Center

A Safe Space at Broadway Youth Center

The Broadway Youth Center (BYC) of Howard Brown Health is a haven for LGBTQ youth and young people experiencing homelessness or housing instability. BYC provides refuge and community as well as medical, social and mental health care services. BYC sees anyone, regardless of ability to pay, and serves more than 1,500 teens and adults aged 12 to 24.

Chicago Women That Will Inspire You

Chicago Women That Will Inspire You

You probably haven’t heard about this organization yet, but they are responsible for helping dozens of women around Chicago.

It is time for you to get to know them.

Chicago Women’s AIDS Project (CWAP) might have a very specific name, but their different programs target a surprisingly broad population.

Project SASS (Sister Advocating for Strong Sisters) helps HIV positive women by partnering with clinics and agencies across the city that provide treatment and education to HIV positive cisgender and transgender women. The goal is to strengthen these women’s coping skills, healthy relationships, and traditional STI/HIV transmission prevention skills.

Their other main project is called Returning Sisters, which is a prevention program. It helps women that are HIV negative, but at high risk of being exposed to the virus, which can be people that experienced or currently experience homelessness, incarceration, substance abuse issues, and mental health issues. CWAP offers free therapy, free recovery coaching, HIV and HEPC testing, and extensive rehabilitation support. They also often offer workshops about a variety of topics, which always have the intention of empowering their clients.

CWAP’s office offers a very informal and welcoming environment, where women can go hang out, ask for help, and feel safe. They are looking for volunteers, interns, and even new staff members. Want to hear more about these women’s stories? Get involved with CWAP’s work! Send an email to Velvian, the Returning Sisters’ Recovery Coach (velvian.cwap@gmail.com).

 

Recovery Coach, Velvian (middle), with two of her clients:

 

Clients often volunteer to help prepare the monthly events:

 

CWAP helped several women that did not have any social support to get their lives back on track:

 

In summary, they do an amazing job, and more people should know about them!

Disability Pride Parade

The 14th annual Disability Pride Parade took the streets July 22nd to talk about the civil rights goals they want to achieve for their community and how these issues are addressed in Chicago.

A recurring theme that came up during one of the meetings for organizing the parade was defining the difference between their parade and a protest. Hank, one of the Grand Marshalls, explains that, “The balance is:  what do we want, what will it give us and how will we go about that and how far we are willing to go. My take is, that the balance is, that we’ll go as far as we have to.And that means that we may have to act as advocates”.

It is important to note that although the parade this year has passed, The Disability Pride Parade is striving to create a larger event next year. This can be an intimidating task considering the obstacles they’ve encountered when requesting for a larger street to march down, however this goal is definitely achievable and they are looking for support and solidarity from other Chicagoans.

To learn more about the parade, check out Disability Pride Parade on Facebook or their website !

You can read up on statistics of resources and employment for people with disabilities here.

In Living Color

In Living Color

Vibrant colors of the rainbow splashed across Chicago in June as residents celebrated Pride festivities. The LGBTQ civil rights movement has accomplished a great deal in its short existence, however there is still more to come. A prevalent issue is the lack of racial representation in the queer community, especially considering many of the leaders in the birth of the movement were queer people of color. Some point out that, because the movement is to be focused on sexuality and gender identity, race should not be involved in the matter. However, although ideally race should not be a factor, the intersectionality of race and queerness is very much connected in the way people are treated and viewed by society and thus there have been consistent instances of racism in the queer community throughout its history. Although allyship is always important, the shift of primarily middle class white people at the forefront of the movement has changed the prioritization of civil rights and led to the erasure of queer people of color as well as created an unwelcoming atmosphere from many pride festivities.

In addressing this issue, Philadelphia added two new stripes to the pride flag on June 8 to signify more inclusion to honor queer people of color who have lead the movement yet are rarely talked about as well as those simply living out their daily lives. This year, we decided to take the streets of Chicago’s Pride Parade and ask people of color in the LGBTQ community what these stripes mean to them, what obstacles they have overcome in navigating their identity, and what they are most optimistic about for the future.

What do these stripes mean to you?

Hiram Bowens (Left) expressed his dislike for the additional stripes because he does not think race should be expressed in the flag. Cole Graske (Right) stated, “I think it’s appropriate, especially with our country right now and everything that’s been going on. I’m all for more people of color and equality”.

What obstacles have you faced as a result of your identity?

Eric Obioha (Middle): “I did not overcome **** because I get judged by straight and other gay people…. Until the gay people can learn to unite with each other – the gay guys especially – can learn to unite with each other, then ain’t nobody gonna overcome nothin. It is too judgmental in these gay streets.”

Bowens: “It pisses me off when white people are like, ‘Well, I’m not really into black guys, but…’ Ooh I hate that. I really hate that. I just –“

Friend: “Or ‘You look cute for a black guy.”

Bowens: “Yeah! ‘I’m glad you’re not as ratchet as most black people’ and stuff like that, that really pisses me off.”

What are you most optimistic about for the future?

Graske: “I think with – hopefully, with what’s going on – people see that there’s a real issue and I hope that people join together (points to Eric) like you were saying.”

Obioha: “Just to be open minded and less judgmental.”

Bowens: “I think there’s so much prejudice in the gay community because you’ve got so many sub-cultures…”

Graske: “But there’s only one, really. I mean we’re all part of one community so… well we should be, I think, going forward.”

What do these stripes mean to you?

Regina Brown (Right): “Life basically, ’cause you got to think about it, black people aren’t always recognized, it’s good that we’re getting recognized, and not just black people, gay people too. For us to be gay and black? That’s a lot, and it means a lot for us to be added to something that’s united. And black and brown, you really don’t see that. You don’t. So when you got a whole rainbow, a full rainbow that’s completed, that’s what you call honesty right there. Cause the rainbow’s not completed without black and brown.”

Tateneisha Brown (Left): “It’s a blessing that people are starting to accept us for who we are…. And I’m a happy and humble person, I’m glad to come out here and I call everyone my family. That’s how I look at it, we’re just one happy family and we’re united and we all stand together. … Everybody’s entitled to their opinion, but I’m happy to be here and even the people who are not gay and came out to support us, it’s a beautiful thing.”

Regina and Tateneisha have been together 7-8 years and married for 2. They recently adopted a one year old child and are excited for their future together as a family.

What obstacles have you faced as a result of your identity?

What obstacles have you faced as a result of your identity?

Brianna Luviano (Left): “I feel like I go through many obstacles, not only being a female, but as soon as people know that I do like women, or that I am gay, it’s very difficult in the sense that they judge you right away. …

I’ve been with her (Brittany, Right) for 10 years, and as soon as people hear that… either they don’t take it seriously or they try to take it seriously…and they’re really confused. The reason why I fell in love with her was not on gender or like, I thought she was gorgeous. Her personality and her kindness is what drew me to her… Growing up, I never thought about ‘Is this right? Is this wrong? Should I be with a woman or a man?’ No, it was never about that. If I liked someone, I liked them. And when I had first seen her, I’ll never forget it. I…it was like, when time stops, that’s how I felt and I was like, ‘she’s gonna be mine.’

That’s how I felt.”

What do these stripes mean to you?

Brent Wolff (Right): “I just think it means more acceptance. If anything, that’s what it’s all about. Within the gay community, there’s a lot of different racial tensions and if adding two more colors means that people feel more free and more accepted, like, let’s do it.”

Jordan Jedry (Left): “For me, I really think it’s about coming back to our roots. Trans women of color really started the LGBTQ movement in the United States and I think adding those additional stripes to honor them and the sacrifices they made is something that we really need to think of as a community. They were the driving forces and everything we do is in their honor.”

What do the stripes mean to you?

Sylvia M.: “I think that’s amazing because whenever you look at pride, all you see is predominantly white people, that’s all that’s represented. Just because our community silences [sexuality], it doesn’t mean it’s O.K. We’re misrepresented and underrepresented. It’s so nice to see yourself represented cause when I was younger and having the feelings I was feeling… you didn’t see black gay people. Being gay was a “white thing” that’s what everyone said. So, to be bisexual and finally see yourself represented in this whole entire great thing we call “Pride”, that’s awesome.”

What obstacles have you been faced with as a result of your identity?

Sylvia discussed her internal conflict. Being bisexual, she said she is often dismissed as “straight passing” and so her experience was different, yet she still struggled with determining who she was as well as how she fit in with the queer community. A part of molding her identity was finding validation of her existence in the first place.

Sylvia M.: “When I found out that it was possible to be bi, that it’s possible to like guys and girls, it felt natural to me that that’s a real feeling.”

What are you most optimistic about?

Sylvia: “I’m optimistic that it’s not gonna be a big deal anymore if we add another stripe to the flag. Who cares? That’s just more colors, there’s more colors than just the few you see every day in a rainbow, you know? There’s so many different spectrums that we just can’t see, so I’m excited about that and I’m also excited about the whole community growing.”

Tyrese (Right) expressed that he does not think the brown and black stripes should be added to the flag. Jemily (Left) said she was split about it, concerned it was exclusionary but also stating that, “People of color have always been dehumanized and belittled by everybody else… I think it depends on the social class as well. But I don’t know, I think it’s a good thing”.

Natalia expressed her experience being Mexican and Spanish. The personal conflict she found was that half of her identity had an oppressive history while another half of her identity was the oppressed. She also acknowledged how her experience is different because she has lighter skin and colorism plays a part in her identity as well.

“There should be a general understanding among the Latino American culture that we’re all experiencing something together and to say that, because of our pigment, we can’t identify with our parents… I struggle with that.” She continued to discuss how racism among Latino Americans has created a divide between other people of color, citing her experience with her parents driving through a predominantly black neighborhood and them automatically locking the car doors

“That’s a learned racism, why are we disassociating from black culture if white government and white patriarchy also oppress that (Latino- American) culture?  They oppress us and they oppress them, why can’t we find that common link?”

So do the stripes provide a change for that?

“Yeah, because we should all find that common link…. That link is what chains us all together”.

What are you most optimistic about for the future?

“There’s a number of young folk that are rising to the occasion in whatever way they can. So, that’s a difference. At the end of the day, if Black and Latino civil rights are connected, if they care about us, they’ll always care about you.”

 

CALL TO ACTION

There are many ways to get involved in local activism. Check out these sites to learn more about how you can help make a change!

http://www.chicagohouse.org/mission-and-history/

http://www.getequal.org/

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/project-fierce-support-a-grassroots-effort-to-address-queer-youth-homelessness#/

 

 

 

Grow Your Own Tree This Summer

Grow Your Own Tree This Summer

Have you ever wished you could build something in Chicago that would last for years?

Have you recently gotten out of a long term relationship and now need to focus on something new?

Have you ever realized how boring you are after someone asked you what you do for fun and all you could think of was laughing at memes so you decided you need a new hobby?

We have the solution to your problem!

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) is giving out free oak saplings to residents of Cook County. They have partnered with the Chicago Region Trees Initiative to create the “Restore the Canopy” project. All you need to do is go to one of their pickup locations to get them. You can choose between individual pots or bulk bags – it all depends on your level of commitment.

Never planted a tree before? No need to worry! You will get all the instructions you need once you get there.

 

What is the MWRD?

The MWRD, also known as District, is responsible forprotecting the quality of the water supply source (Lake Michigan), improving the quality of water in watercourses in its service area, protecting businesses and homes from flood damages, and managing water as a vital resource for its service area”.

Besides “Restore the Canopy”, MWRD has several other projects – for instance they are responsible for “greenifying” schools in Chicago. So if you liked this initiative you should definitely go to their website and learn more about them. 

 

Why is MWRD doing this?

The goal is simple – restore the canopy! Besides making Chicago even prettier, oak trees provide lots of benefits to the environment. For example, they can reduce flooding, reduce air pollution and even provide protection from the wind.

 

How can I get them?

There are several pickup locations in Cook County. You can find them in Chicago at the Calumet Water Reclamation Plant (WRP) at 400 E. 130th St., Chicago. If you rely on public transportation, you can take Bus 34 to get there. To see other locations, access their website.

They distribute the samplings every Wednesday from 9 a.m. to noon.

It’s time to get out of your comfort zone and go pick up your oak sapling! Make sure to take pictures and post them on Instagram to brag about your new environmentally responsible persona. Don’t forget to tag us with #ChicagoRises and #MyMWDRTree


 

Still have questions? You can call their public affairs office at (312) 751-6633 or send an email to public.affairs@mwrd.org.
Other important phone numbers:

  • Calumet WRP: (773) 256-3538
  • Small Stream Maintenance (report blockages/debris in streams): (312) 751-5106
  • Hazardous Waste Dump Hotline Illegal dumping of waste into waterways or sewers or complaints of water pollution: (800) 332-3867

 

Building Community at the Howard Area Community Center

Building Community at the Howard Area Community Center

Strung along a quiet strip of Paulina Street, just north of Howard Street and its eponymous CTA station sits the headquarters–several buildings in all, in addition to another facility on Morse Avenue and Ashland Avenue — of the Howard Area Community Center. Unassuming in appearance, the center is surprisingly prolific in practice, offering more than 40 different programs to a wide range of ages, ethnic and language groups and needs.

In order to familiarize myself with the dizzying array of services provided by this community cornerstone of Rogers Park, I sat down with the center’s Director of Development, Beth Ulion.  She led me through the main building’s labyrinthine of hallways and rooms, and pointed out various facilities and spaces of such disparate uses that I eventually concluded she was joking.  A daycare and separate adult ESL classrooms?  Check.  A Food Pantry?  Check.  A fully equipped and staffed dentist’s clinic??  Surprisingly, check.

Even more exciting, she mentioned, is the space at the Morse/Ashland branch.  Here, the HACC houses a Teen Arts and Technology Center designed to offer teenagers from low-income or troubled households a safe, fostering haven in the mischief-prone hours of after-school freedom.  If you’re picturing a beige-walled room with some scattered desks, chairs, and an assortment of cast-off art supplies, though, you couldn’t be further from the mark.  The Clubhouse is proudly youth-oriented and youth-appointed—that is, planned, purposed, and decorated by the very adolescents who use it.  This means that the basement—renamed the “ConCave” for reasons which will shortly become clear—walls are plastered in original comics authored and illustrated by program participants. The tech area offers not just computers and video games for business and pleasure, but also a super computer which the youth built themselves. A ‘cosplay station’—a workshop dedicated to engineering and executing costumes and props—occupies a corner of the basement.  Additionally, the center offers support and guidance for teens interested in starting their own crafts or arts businesses, as well as a facility to make t-shirts and other art projects.  The ultimate objective of this imaginative asylum—part-playground and part-professional development center—is, as Ulion puts it, to create “a second home that is a safer place than home.”

A shot of the Teen Center’s Computer Clubhouse. Photo courtesy of Howard Area Community Center

When I asked what Ulion would identify as some of the most unique characterizing features of HACC, she answered with a readiness that reflects how deeply she and other HACC organizers have considered the organization’s values and its activities.  “I think the way we execute our programs shows how invested we are in helping people and building the community in the long term.  Any (organization) can throw money at a problem, but we’re devoted to developing sustained community change and individual success.”

Oddly enough, Ulion’s comments and the HACC approach to authentic community change left me thinking of Leo Tolstoy’s exploration of the nature of meaningful social reform in his classic novel “Anna Karenina”.  In the novel, one of the main characters, Konstantin Levin, struggles with effecting positive economic and humanitarian reforms on his farming estate.  He notices that his landowning peers tend to follow en vogue technological and political movements blindly, assuming that they’re doing ‘the right things’ for their peasants by towing the popular social lines of the time.  It seems to Levin, though, that such politically correct measures aren’t doing much good if one honestly confronts and evaluates the results: the peasants’ living conditions continue to deteriorate, farming profits keep shrinking, and farming practices appear no more efficient for all the newfangled British equipment and methodology than they had been during the primitive centuries of serfdom.  Over the course of the novel, then, he comes to a reevaluate his approach to meaningful reform, learning among other things that authentic social reform takes more than good intentions: if you really want to make things better for other people and not just be smug about one’s laudable actions, you need to care about the actual outcome of your reforms—and not just the impressive nature of your efforts—on the communities and people you’re purporting to help.

It may seem like a bit of a long-winded digression, but the more I mulled over my conversation with Ulion, the more salient Tolstoy’s thoughts on authentic and counterfeit social change seem.  After all, in an age where philanthropic successes are measured by viral hits and dollar signs, we seem more and more obsessed with the statistical trappings of charitable success and less and less concerned with what happens to the X-amount of dollars once it’s been chalked up to a fundraising total.  The Howard Area Community Center seems to stand in inspiring contradistinction to these trends: its programs eschew the flashiness of short-term results for sustained and substantive involvement.

Photo courtesy of Howard Area Community Center

The New Era Project, for example, focuses on gang intervention and prevention, pairing at-risk youth with long-term mentors and activities.  The goal is not to tally attendance at a one-off workshop and then claim dozens of success stories.  Rather, the program focuses on building trusting, lasting relationships between the youth—many of whom have entire families and social circles involved in gang life—and positive role models, thereby making them lasting assets to—rather than detractors from—the community fabric.

Similarly, the Career and College Readiness and Scholarships program provides more than the limited or one-time guidance and support offered by many scholarship endowments.  Rather, a case manager remains with their students throughout the full first year of their college careers, keeping track of their lives and helping them through emergent challenges in the unfamiliar day-to-day lifestyle of higher education.  After all, Ulion points out, a scholarship program’s success shouldn’t be judged by the number of students it enrolls in college initially: if the unprepared and overwhelmed new students drop out over the course of the next year, you haven’t actually made any headway in the original problem and objective of the program; that is, to provide disadvantaged youth with college educations.

As if these programs weren’t sufficiently ambitious, the HACC offers dozens more, all geared to help the most vulnerable and under-served demographics of society, such as refugees, ex-cons, women experiencing domestic violence, those suffering from HIV/AIDS, and low-income families or single parents with small children.  In addition to the more intensive outreach and educational programs offered, the center also strives to assist community members with basic services and amenities, such as a public computer lab, print station, and fax machine, as well as a food pantry and in-kind donations for things such as toiletries and diapers.

Photo courtesy of Howard Area Community Center

Again, I think to myself, donations like Ventra cards and a place to check emails are the kinds of things that so often get overlooked, the minutiae of overwhelming societal problems like joblessness or recidivism which can be every bit as insurmountable an obstacle to finding gainful employment or staying out of prison as the overarching economic and legal policies which produce them.  By paying attention to these oft-neglected quotidian hardships, the Howard Area Community Center demonstrates a refreshingly practical approach to public service that values the details as much as it does sweeping community change.  And, as Tolstoy or the organizers of the HACC can teach us, if your goal is to strengthen a community and bolster the wellbeing of its individuals—if you really want to help—then there should be no such thing as a minor detail, no need too basic, and no purpose too small.

CALL TO ACTION

When asked how interested members of the public can get involved, Ulion suggested a litany of opportunities, ranging from those requiring a significant time commitment and period of training to those which require little more than a few hours a month and a pair of willing hands.  No matter how people get involved, she points out, the HACC boasts a special knack at keeping first-time volunteers engaged: “typically, once someone gets involved here, they never leave.”

Among some of the specific duties open to new volunteers are Food Pantry helpers, tutors for both Adult Education and After-School programs, and freelance translators and interpreters.  Groups interested in doing a project together can also get in touch through the center’s email at volunteers@howardarea.org in order to work on larger-scale renovation projects.  Interested readers can check out volunteer opportunities on the HACC website or, for more specialized queries, through the center’s email.  Additionally, anyone can also donate through the HACC donation portal or check the detailed list of in-kind donations and other giving options for a varied list of ways to contribute.  For further information about donating, contact Beth Ulion at eulion@howardarea.org.

 

Chicago Continues to Rise

Chicago Continues to Rise

      Late one night, when we were all in bed

      Old Mother Leary left a lantern in the shed,

          And when the cow kicked it over, she winked an eye and said,

   “There’ll be a hot time, on the old town tonight.”

Fire, fire, fire!

If you grew up in Chicago, chances are high that you’ve heard the song detailing the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The infamous event left the great city in devastation and shambles, but that’s not where the story ends. Some of the greatest minds from various industries joined forces, collaborated, and did the seemingly impossible. The community banded together to rebuild and better the city. Inspired by the spirit of growth and development that existed after the Great Chicago Fire, 1871 was founded in 2012. The organization has grown to be a valuable resource and support system for over 400 digital start-ups and events in the city of Chicago.

1871 is the main initiative of its parent non-profit organization, the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center (CEC). CEC developed 1871 to provide a tangible address and work-space for Chicago based entrepreneurs in the technology and digital arenas.  The entire operation is run and supported by CEC. According to their website, 1871 “is a place where you can share ideas, make mistakes, work hard, build your business and, with a little luck, change the world.”

There have been a variety of events held at the eye-catching    and modern work-space, such as the StartupAmerica: 1 Year Anniversary National Event, Innovative Technologies in the Automotive Industry: a French View on the Green, and most recently The Purpose Pitch. I was particularly impressed with the push to get young girls interested and involved in the technology scene.

The main goal of the organization is to connect people to resources- be it financial, human collateral, work-space, or simply acting as a think-tank to bounce ideas around. A wide variety of programs are offered to fulfill that mission like mentor/mentee programs, volunteer opportunities, classes and seminars, and the opportunity to hold an event at the Merchandise Mart work- space.

  1871 is growing in popularity and helping Chicago based entrepreneurs. The organization is a prime example of the ideal that we are better together, and is doing great things for the city of Chicago.

CALL TO ACTION

Check out 1871’s website, social media pages, and get involved! That can manifest as taking a class, attending an event, or even sharing their page on your social media sites. Digital technology is an ever growing and expanding field and you don’t want to get left behind!

Protecting Chicago Cats at Harmony House

Protecting Chicago Cats at Harmony House

I visited Harmony House on a rainy Friday afternoon and was pleasantly surprised by the space they have created that is welcoming and comforting to cats and humans alike. Harmony House is unique because most of the 80 to 100 cats at the shelter on any given day are kept in rooms where they can roam around, that are clean, filled with toys and structures, and have big windows that provide lots of natural light and a window to the outside world.

Harmony House Board Member Mary Veeneman with a resident cat.

Mary Veeneman, a board member of Harmony House, and Jennifer Zameic, the Harmony House Shelter Manager, show me around the shelter. They walk me through the rooms, and introduce me to plenty of cats, who come in all different shapes, sizes, ages, colors, health conditions, and personalities. It seems like what they have in common is a safe space to stay for as long as they need.

Harmony House prides itself on not euthanizing cats for space or money, so cats are allowed the time they need to heal, develop, and come out of their shells. Mary explains that some cats get adopted as soon after being in the shelter for a few weeks, while others take a few years to find their forever home.

Mary and Jennifer introduce the cats to me and introduce me to the cats’ individual stories and personalities. This seems like a concept Harmony House holds dear.

For example, Olympia is 17 and has been with Harmony House since she was six months old. She was completely unable to be handled for several years. But when Harmony House moved to their new location in 2012, Olympia decided that she likes people and now she enjoys being picked up and pet.

Harmony House is a cat shelter that has become a cornerstone of its neighborhood, and it’s easy to see why. It’s welcoming, it’s eco-friendly, it rescues and adopts out cats, and it is part of the wider trend happening in Chicago where people are taking steps to protect stray and vulnerable domestic animals.

Fewer and fewer of the stray and unwanted animals brought to Chicago Animal Care and Control are being euthanized, and more are leaving alive and finding forever homes. Much of this is due to community involvement and the presence of shelters like Harmony House. See the long term statistics published by Chicago Animal Care and Control here.

Mary takes pride in the unique role Harmony House has in the city. “Part of what we do and part of how we see ourselves as being a little bit different from other shelters is that we’re lower volume, so we intentionally take in fewer cats than other shelters,” she says.

Mary explains that by doing this, Harmony House is able to take in cats with special needs, such as cats with behavioral issues, health problems, or cats that just may need more time to find a forever home. These cats may need to spend more time at a shelter before they are ready to be adopted out.

Freddy and Cheez It are a perfect example of cats that needed a little more time at the shelter. Freddy and Cheez It arrived at Harmony House separately but quickly became attached to each other. When Cheez It arrived, he was very shy, hissed, and didn’t like to be handled by people. Freddy was extremely boisterous and needed time to work on his cat manners. Freddy has helped Cheez It come out of his shell and Cheez It has helped Freddy become calmer.

Harmony House focuses on rescuing cats from the Chicago area. “We feel very strongly about taking cats from the area,” Mary says. Harmony House has a stray license from the city of Chicago and usually adopts out between 120 to 140 cats and kittens each year.

As we finish the tour I think of any questions I could have missed about Harmony House. I think about the very important but often hidden role animal shelters play in our community. They constantly process and care for the animals that get overlooked or forgotten about by the rest of us. Getting a glimpse of how they function and the love and care needed to keep them thriving helped me to appreciated even more the role they play in our community.

I asked Mary and Jennifer what they liked most about their job. “The cats” they both answer without hesitation.

CALL TO ACTION

Harmony House is located on 2914 North Elston Avenue. They welcome volunteers, adults and children alike, and have adoption hours four days a week. Harmony House also holds regular fundraisers, including a Kitty Summer Social on June 11th from 1-4pm which features arts, crafts, drinks, and a raffle. Check out their website here. You are welcome to get involved!

Setting an Example Where It’s Needed: The Healing Corner

Setting an Example Where It’s Needed: The Healing Corner

Within the last several years, the city of Chicago has been widely known as having one of the highest murder rates in the United States. Due to this, the term “Chiraq” has been infamously coined for the lively city because of the constant shootings frequently committed in predominately the West and South sides of the city. In the West side of Chicago however, two women are aiming to make a difference regarding the issue of gun violence.

Arielle Maldonado and Krystal Robledo created The Healing Corner, an organization that sets up tables on street corners in neighborhoods that are affected by gun violence and provides an array of resources for those in the community, especially for young men in these communities that are involved in gang-related activity. The Healing Corner  works to build a dialog on violence while simultaneously providing resources and necessities for those in the community.

The Healing Corner began in 2015 when Robledo attended a prayer vigil with her children in the West Humboldt Park area. It was during that prayer vigil, a group of people were praying in a circle holding hands, when suddenly shots were fired on the other side of the ally, interrupting the vigil entirely. Traumatized, Robledo and her children fled the scene and then she called l Maldonado to inform her about the shooting. Thinking that prayer vigils were not enough to solve this rising issue, Maldonado responded by saying to Robledo, “Something needs to be done because the people who keep shooting are going to think that it is acceptable.”

Shortly after, both Robledo and Maldonado visited an organization on the South Side that handed out free food. The women proposed that they should do something similar to that on the West side. To do this, they reached out to several different organizations to come together and start this corner to try to leave an impact in these communities.

The first ever Healing Corner was hosted on the corner of West Division Street and Keeler Avenue in West Humboldt Park, where Robledo resides. This corner was chosen to host the first Healing Corner because it had numerous issues and was notoriously known as the “Killing Corner”. The various organizations came together to grill and converse, while the young men who were hanging out across the street came to help out, carry things, and set up.

After hosting a very successful corner, those young men approached Maldonado, Robledo and others. Maldonado explains, “The guys that helped us in the beginning came up to us and said, ‘Man, if you were to start this two years ago there would be peace here right now. So we left with the idea that we have to keep doing this because volunteers and people of the community would ask when the next corner was.”

Setting up on corners in West side neighborhoods like Humboldt Park, Austin and Garfield Park, The Healing Corner offers various beneficial services. The organization tries to avoid setting up on busy streets and instead settles on empty lots and playgrounds that have been neglected. This set-up presents several tables offering food, resources, and sometimes an additional table dedicated to special events and holidays like Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Mother’s Day.

The resource table features a mixture of different resources and assets located in the area that are directed to bettering the community as a whole. Some of the assets that the Healing Corner has to offer ranges from the Humboldt Park Food Pantry booklet, homeless resource sheets, flyers for upcoming summer activities and programming, GED tutoring, and much more. “We try to compile resources to make it easier if somebody is looking for something specific,” Maldonado said. The organization also tries to bring bubbles, chalk, jump rope, and playing balls in order to give the corner a welcoming feeling.

The corner also includes several features that enhance the conversation on violence for both adults and children. These features include a binder where children can enter their drawings and a poster board asking the important question of how the violence should end, as people are free to write their opinion on the subject.

The Healing Corner spent all of 2016 building relationships and trust with the neighborhoods. “Before they would ask us if we were apart of the law and we were not affiliated with a church, so some guys were skeptical and thought it was weird,” Maldonado said.

The organization’s current aim is to focus on education for 2017. “Now were trying to start the dialog in the communities of what is happening in the local city and state governments as well as what policies are coming into place that will affect these neighborhoods and their everyday living,” Maldonado said. “Education can help form unity, especially to the younger guys.”

Since it’s founding, the organization has expanded to other areas apart from the West side. They have hosted Healing Corners in Rogers Park and will have two events in the South Side this upcoming summer. Outside of Chicago, the Healing Corner has also set up sites a couple of times in neighborhoods in Boston and North Philadelphia. Maldonado states that the Healing Corner’s goal is to try to host a corner at least once a week, aiming to improve these conditions in these different areas week by week.

After being asked if the violence in Chicago has gotten better or worse, Maldonado broke down the many factors that she believes cause the frequent shootings and other violence that occurs in the city. She explains that the gang structure has changed drastically especially after the destruction of the Cabrini Green housing projects as this dispersed many people in the city. There were also many police stings, Maldonado said, which sent gang leaders to prison, as this led to more cliques and more youth not listening to elders. Now, a lot of the gangs consist of younger men. Guns are also easier to access as well, Maldonado explained.

The biggest factor however, Maldonado said, is the role that schools play regarding the violence affecting the city. The combination of schools closing and teachers’ short school tenure creates a lack of a stable platform. Because a lot of these children in these communities do not have parents involved in their lives or permanent teachers they can look up to, the lack of guidance immensely contributes to the schools’ unstable nature.

“That’s why The Healing Corner tries to go back and go to the corners we visited before to show we did not forget about them. Through that, we restore hope and spread love which is really needed,” Maldonado said.

The impact that The Healing Corner has left on the neighborhoods they have touched is rather immense. By constantly showing up in different neighborhoods that need improvement and education, they “set a positive example of what community is and what it should look like,” Maldonado said.

CALL TO ACTION

The Healing Corner will be hosting a corner on Sunday, June 4th on the corner of Washington and Parkside in Austin if you would like to attend. They are also participating at Kelvyn Park High School’s End of the School Year Event in Hermosa on June 9th. They will also host their first corner in the South side on July 8th on 25th Place and Washtenaw by Washtenaw Park in Little Village. In addition, the organization is raising money for their future events and other various resources they can attain. If you would like to donate, you can go on www.YouCaring.com/TheHealingCorner  or share the link on Facebook. To follow them on social media, like them on Facebook @TheHealingCornerChicago

Chicago Celebrates National Poetry Month

Chicago Celebrates National Poetry Month

On one of the first warm and sunny days of the Chicago spring, while clusters of galloping children and strolling adults soak in the long-awaited rays, a group of poetry aficionados gather in the friendly confines of Sulzer Regional Library.  The event they’ve assembled to see is entitled “Not-Your-Grandma’s Poetry,” part of a month-long initiative by the Chicago Public Libraries to celebrate National Poetry Month.  The series of events will culminate in the April 30th Poetry Fest at Harold Washington Library, where attendees can take advantage of a variety of free offerings, such as writing workshops, readings, and open mics.

But for now the Poetry Fest is still a couple of weeks away, and the audience currently gathered has come to see Emily Thornton Calvo, a Chicago-based multimedia poet who exhibits her watercolors—many of them with poems inscribed into the paintings—while reading her original verses.  The group isn’t exactly diverse or youthful—indeed one could gamble that most of the listening parties are in fact grandmothers explicitly excluded in the event’s title—but the resultant atmosphere is decidedly welcoming and thoughtful, with audience members listening carefully to Calvo’s engaging oratory while examining her corresponding paintings.

Calvo’s poems and paintings span from topics deeply personal and profound to ones light and humorous, moving seamlessly from smiling, frivolous observation, to wincing memories of family and painful personal crises.  Her first poem, for example, is called “Hunting Down Dinner on Highway 13,” a light-hearted recollection of dinner at a Missouri café called the Beefmaster.  After speculating cheerfully that the restaurant’s patriarch—presumably the Beefmaster himself—has “a past as checkered as the tablecloths,” she turns her eye on the rest of the diner’s supporting cast: Mrs. Beefmaster, Junior Beefmaster, and the ever-attendant swarms of flies making the rounds of the tables.  Ever insightful and good-natured, Calvo’s eye transforms a decidedly prosaic event and setting into an engaging character study and contemplation on the universal experience—part awkwardness and part adventure, part drudgery and part curiosity—of traveling the countryside.

Original artwork by Emily Calvo http://emilycalvo.com/artist/

After this carefree jaunt down Highway 13, Calvo changes gears to contemplate her father’s legacy in her life and childhood.  In “Daddy’s Gay and I Don’t Mean Happy,” she reflects on how her father’s later-in-life coming-out affected their friendship and her perception of him as a good father and husband.  Though he always kept part of himself hidden—the gay man separate from his family, the family man discrete from his friends—Calvo concludes that he was ultimately a wonderful father whose parenting she couldn’t fault: “whatever half of him was a husband,” she writes, “all of him was always my father.”

From such deeply personal reminiscences of her parents and children, Calvo proceeds to reflections on her own battle with cancer, thoughtful observations of African art exhibits at the Art Institute of Chicago, travels in France and the delights of the French cafe, and life-changing conversations with a Holocaust survivor.  Despite this disparity, no topic seems out of place or jarring to the general flow of the reading, each shift in tone and content creating a resilient smoothness—which must in part be owed to Calvo’s artless delivery and openness—rather than a sense of unevenness or lack of context.  Indeed, while wall-to-wall personal subjects might have left everyone feeling claustrophobic and uncomfortably vulnerable, the alternating somber and buoyant tones produce an admirable balance.

Calvo closes her reading with an unconventional ode to Chicago, a hometown she loves but one which she perceives as mishandled or romanticized by fellow poets.  “Chicago is not a woman,” she objects to the implied voices of these mischaracterizing peers, “he’s your cousin who borrows money from you and pays you back with a wink.” This sneaky but lovable persona, she elaborates, trundles through winter “drunk on snow, high on blow” while boasting multiple character flaws—including its notoriously segregated neighborhoods—overlooked by poets attributing Sophian, gendered wisdom and gentleness to the gigantic and complex metropolis.  Ultimately, though, it’s an ode all the same, a loving gesture to the bright lights big city made all the more intimate and affectionate by the acknowledgement of its avuncular charm, weaknesses, cruelties, and anomalous features.

Original artwork by Emily Calvo http://emilycalvo.com/artist/

This off-beat depiction of Chicago seems a fitting farewell to Chicago’s celebration of National Poetry Month, as it reflects not just Calvo’s unique perception of the Windy City, but the quirky nature of the readings I’ve attended this month and even, in some ways, the Chicago Public Libraries system as a whole.  For anyone who has stumbled into a busy CPL branch on a warm weekend or a chilly workday, you’re familiar with the motley crew of fellow patrons that greets you, a crowd as diverse as the buildings, neighborhoods, and industries of the city that cradles them. They’re not all angels, as you’ll quickly discover when a cranky senior citizen grumbles at you for speaking above the meekest whisper—ironically using a decidedly audible and un-blushing tone to do so—but they’re nevertheless part of Chicago’s “treasure,” a few cantankerous frowns to match the “magnificent smiles, all colors all shapes” that make up this city.

Call to Action

While this year’s National Poetry Month is now over, interested readers can attend a variety of ongoing poetry events across the city of Chicago.  The Poetry Foundation hosts year-long readings and workshops at various venues in Chicago and Chicagoland, including two upcoming events in May celebrating the works of Gwendolyn Brooks, a mid-twentieth-century Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whom Emily Calvo claims as one of her main literary influences.

If you’d like to support Chicago arts and poetry with more than your attendance and participation in said events, you can also make a donation to the Poetry Foundation, or to the Chicago Public Library Foundation.

You can also become a volunteer for the Homework Help Program through the CPL and assist local elementary and high school students with after-school assignments.