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.