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.