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.
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.
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 (email@example.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!
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.
When speaking about Rise from the Ashes, a Plainfield-based 5013c nonprofit that provides legal and emotional support to low-income women suffering from domestic violence, founder Stephanie Austin is quick to point out some truly staggering numbers. Domestic violence, for example, causes more injuries to women every year than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined. Additionally, abusive partners seeking sole custody of children achieve their ends in 70% of cases in which the victim of domestic violence lacks representation. These numbers, she says, speak for themselves, testifying resoundingly to the urgent need for her organization and its work.
And they aren’t, she points out, just empty numbers, black-and-white statistics she’s culled from the pages of reputable journals but to which she cannot attest in real life. This is because Austin herself is a survivor of domestic violence, once a near-penniless mother struggling to sever the legal ties binding her to an abusive husband. “It was a desperate situation,” Austin says. Even when she considered trying to leave her husband, she “quickly found there was nowhere for me to go. You can stay in a women’s shelter, sure, but you can only stay for six weeks. Then what?” Not only was there nowhere to flee in the short-term, but the prospect of long-term solutions seemed equally grim: “No matter where I ended up staying,” she explains, “I needed legal representation to obtain a divorce and get custody of my kids. But this is almost impossible if you don’t have the money to hire an attorney.”
After all, she continues, the issue is more complicated than people think: “People will say, go to legal aid—you’re entitled to an attorney even if you can’t afford one!” she remembers, her words recalling the Miranda warning made famous by popular police and court procedurals, such as Law and Order. “But they don’t know or haven’t thought about the fact that this pertains to criminal law, not civil cases.” You’ll get a state-funded attorney if you’re charged with a crime, in other words, but not if you’re pursuing a civil matter, such as a lawsuit, a divorce, or a protection order. This means that many women—often already vulnerable due to straitened circumstances and abusive relationships—are left in a legal no-(wo)man’s land, struggling to address their problems legally but possessing no fiscal means to do so.
Original artwork by Charlotte Farhan https://panmelacastro.carbonmade.com/projects/6093377
It makes sense, perhaps, that people don’t know much about this side of the system as long as they’ve never had to deal with it personally; after all, Austin herself only comprehended the complexities of the problem once she encountered it. Faced with the urgent need for a divorce and custody of her children but with almost no money to do so, Austin threw herself at the mercy of an attorney she found by googling the term “aggressive solo custody lawyer.” Upon learning of her plight, this lawyer—Chicago-based attorney Michael A. Biederstadt of Biederstadt Law, P.C.—agreed to represent her.
Both Biederstadt and Austin would find the case and partnership to be an eye-opening experience: Austin encountered countless other women battling similar circumstances, women who, without the magnanimous assistance of an attorney, were faring far worse in their own cases than Austin was. At the same time, Biederstadt was learning about a side of the civil court system he had never so much as glimpsed before: even after years of practicing family law, Austin’s case was the first time he witnessed the unique and astonishing problems specific to domestic violence cases. He saw how the system tended to work against women in violent marriages and result in their legal underrepresentation. For example, many women experiencing domestic abuse do not possess an independent income or access to marital funds or assets, meaning that they cannot afford to hire their own attorneys. This material disadvantage does not, though, translate to free legal services as it would in many other cases: most free or subsidized legal aid services take the husband’s income and assets into account when considering whether an applicant qualifies for assistance. Consequently, women just like Austin were suffering in violent marriages because they couldn’t get representation to escape them.
The shared experience was so profound, Austin says, that neither one felt they could continue their lives as before, even after Austin’s own divorce and custody cases had been satisfactorily adjudicated. In recounting the formative inspiration for their venture, she recalls a favorite saying of her cofounder: “[Biederstadt] says all the time that you get opportunities in life to really make a difference, and it’s up to you if you take them or not.” So, the pair resolved to form a nonprofit that would support women in abusive marriages, connecting philanthropically minded lawyers and counselors with the women most in need of them.
Only two short years after its formation in 2015, Rise from the Ashes now provides an array of services to Kane, Kendall, DuPage, and Will counties. Not only do volunteers provide legal representation and counseling to needy clients, but they also arrange court companions for women set to attend or testify in court against their abusive exes, as well as organize legal clinics at women’s shelters around DuPage and Kane counties. These clinics are a way for Rise from the Ashes to reach and assist a wider range of women than the relatively few clients who qualify for and receive the organization’s more intensive, one-on-one legal and counseling services. “Many women,” Austin explains, “don’t qualify for our services due to financial factors, but they can still get a lot of useful information, community support, and legal advice when they attend our clinics and forums.”
Image by Taproot India for the Save Our Sisters campaign
At a recent event, she recalls, the organization held an open-ended Q&A session where women could ask legal professionals any question they might have about their own personal plights and efforts to escape abuse. Many women asked whether or not it was legal for them to record abusive telephone calls or in-person confrontations with their current or ex partners—after all, they reasoned, they would be asked later for evidence to support claims of abuse and mistreatment. No, the lawyers, answered, surreptitious recordings of any kind—with the exception of those documenting a crime—are not admissible in court in Illinois. This means that, while women may want to capture instances of their husbands yelling at them or their children for future reference, it’s actually illegal to do so. Similarly, if one wants to videotape an abuser’s violent behavior, one must disclose the fact that one is recording the altercation in order to use it as evidence.
Despite the rapid expansion and resounding success of the young organization, Austin concedes that there are some challenges. Fundraising and finding relevant grant opportunities, for example, can be a huge headache: since each case usually takes a long time—sometimes over a year—to complete, the organization is still building its finished client statistics. This means that many of the statistics grant committees look for are misleading, unable to reflect the fact that RFTA has provided over $200,000 in billable hours—including legal clinics and counseling services—in the past year alone. It can also be a problem to find highly qualified professionals: while signing on attorneys willing to donate their time and energy to the organization has been relatively easy, Austin notes that it has been more difficult to find pro bono counselors and psychologists. This dearth of mental health volunteers is particularly problematic because victims of domestic abuse don’t just need physical and legal separation from their abusers; they also require intensive therapy to administer to the psychological scars of long-term trauma.
Thankfully, these challenges shrink to a speck when compared to the rewards of keeping Rise from the Ashes afloat. Not only does Austin feel that she gets to “pay forward” the tremendous gift she received from her lawyer’s initial generosity, but she also gets to witness firsthand a kind-heartedness and goodwill in Chicagoland residents. “In a lot of ways we’ve been really fortunate to have received such immediate and generous support: when people hear the numbers and find out about the lack of services available, they want to help. I always say, it’s an obvious problem with an obvious solution. Once people see the problem, they’re—more often than not—willing to help with the solution.”
Call to Action
Rise from the Ashes is always looking for volunteers to help the organization. More specifically, they are looking for women who can commit their time to acting as court companions for RFTA clients. They also need people who can help plan and put together fundraising events, as well as experienced accountants or bookkeepers who can help out with the clerical side of the organization. If you’re interested in performing any of these duties, just reach out! Email firstname.lastname@example.org and someone from the organization will be sure to respond—just be sure to indicate what kind of role you can envision yourself playing in the organization, as it can be difficult for organization members to assign and coordinate ambiguous volunteer requests.
Or, if you’re short on time but still want to help out, visit the official RFTA website—rfta.co—and donate directly. All donations go directly to client services and assistance, and even modest gifts are greatly appreciated.
Thanks to Kirbi Range and Deanna Hallagan from Project Hope, we get to spread some awareness on what it means to be a pregnant teen and how Project Hope has been working to empower these mothers for over 30 years.
Before starting Project Hope, after the 60’s riots, Kay Hallagan began volunteering with Marillac and started a bus service called Mothers to Mothers. This was necessary since the food deserts and lack of transportation were barriers for the mothers to have access to a healthy selection of foods, which is something we still see in present day Chicago. After running this service, Kay was encouraged to go back to school and receive a Masters degree in social work at the Jane Adams School of Social Work at UIC. Since then she was offered a position as the head of the family services. As a mother of 12 she could easily empathize with the mothers in need, in turn she started Project Hope.