Heartland Alliance: Ending Poverty in Chicago for 128 Years

Heartland Alliance: Ending Poverty in Chicago for 128 Years

In the heart of Ravenswood, between an art center and a furniture store, sits a nondescript building with a small sign out front that reads “Heartland Alliance Human Care.” While the sign may be small, the impact this organization has on Chicago is something much, much bigger.

The mission of Heartland Alliance is simple: to end poverty.  Through housing, jobs, and justice, Heartland aims to better the lives of endangered populations, particularly the poor, isolated, and displaced.  According to their mission statement, they aim to provide “comprehensive and respectful services and the promotion of permanent solutions leading to a more just global society.”  Heartland Alliance itself is nationwide and even has programs abroad, but this Ravenswood branch is essential to Chicago in its own way.

Alyssa Wilson is the Volunteer Coordinator for the office of RICS (Refugee and Immigrant Community Services) at Heartland Alliance Human Care.  It’s her job to recruit, train, and work with all of the many volunteers that spend time working at Heartland and giving back to their community. Wilson said that “people think the refugee crisis is happening across the world, and it is, but there are so many opportunities to help refugees here locally in your own city.”

While she noted there are many steps before a participant ends up in Chicago under the care of Heartland, once they do, they have case managers, an employment team, VELT (Vocational English Language Training), and YFS (Youth and Family Services) all working to help make Chicago a home for them. The end goal is to help families acclimate to life in the United States in all facets of society.

Heartland’s volunteers do anything from teaching English language classes to helping grocery shop to putting apartments together for arriving families so that “when these families are coming from twenty hours of travel, we, as an agency pick them up from the airport and bring them to their new apartment,” in what Wilson said is a way to make families feel more comfortable. Everything from traveling on the CTA to scheduling a doctor’s appointment is an unfamiliar process when they first arrive, and Heartland and its volunteers are there to help families feel welcomed, safe, and supported.

“It is so wonderful to be able to connect our participants with people who are from America or are immigrants themselves or just people from Chicago because it’s really given them a different resource in a different capacity,” Wilson said. These relationships are not one-sided, either. She said her favorite part of her job is what she called the “first match meeting,” where volunteers meet the participants they will be working with in “a hopefully life-changing experience for both.”

Volunteers are a driving force at Heartland, and Wilson emphasized the constant need for their help.  “Our volunteers are so amazing,” Wilson said. “They are amazing people that just care so much and make such a difference in our participants’ lives.”

This nondescript building in the heart of Ravenswood touches the lives of people all around the city of Chicago and all around the world. It may be small, but it is truly mighty.


Volunteer with Heartland! Contact Alyssa Wilson at Heartland Alliance Human Care in Ravenswood at alwilson@heartlandalliance.org to learn more and get started.

Below are some of the amazing opportunities available to volunteers:

  • Youth Mentoring Program: Work with newly arrived refugee youth, ages 6-18 in anything from homework to learning English to simply adapting to life in the United States.
  • Tutor Refugee Children in English (Pilot Program): Work with children on summer English classes in classroom assistance to help them with basic reading, writing, and speaking skills.
  • Tutor Refugee Adults in English: Work with adult refugees on English language skills in their VELT (Vocational English Language Training) program.
  • Family Mentoring Program: Help families in the refugee resettlement process in regards welcoming them (apartment preparation, greeting the family at the airport, visiting with the family), transportation (help navigating the CTA and getting to appointments as needed), and education/mentoring/community orientation (providing academic support with school-aged refugee youth, helping navigate life from going grocery shopping to setting up a bank account).
  • After School Program: Work with youth participants on homework and English skills in an after-school setting.
  • Women’s Empowerment Program: Women volunteers pair up with refugee to help her acclimate to her community and navigate her place in US society.
  • Early Childhood Education Program: Work alongside Heartland staff to provide care for 2-3-year-old refugee children while their parents attend English classes at Heartland.
  • Housing and Donations Volunteer: Help prepare a family’s first apartment in Chicago by loading up household good, shopping for furniture with agency funds, and setting up the apartment for families to come home to.
Students in Chicago Take to the Gardens

Students in Chicago Take to the Gardens

It’s officially gardening season, and all around the city, Chicagoans are out tending to their plants.  We all know the benefits of gardening: getting outside, engaging in moderate physical exercise, and, of course, growing your own veggies.  Through the student-focused organization Gardeeners, students are getting to join in on the gardening fun. Founded in 2014 by two Teach For America alumni, Adam Zmick and May Tsupros, Gardeneers is an organization that exists “to give Chicago students in food desert communities equal access to healthy food and food education.”  Working with students from Pre-K all the way to 12th grade, Gardeneers is impacting student lives around the city, one school garden at a time.

Amanda Fieldman, Director of Development at Gardeneers, said they work with 25 schools – 19 elementary and 6 high schools – meaning there are an impressive 2,300 students working in the gardens each week. The K-8 program is centered around experiential and sensory learning, while the high school experience, with the partnership of After School Matters, has more of an entrepreneurial focus, Fieldman said.  Take

Chicago’s neighborhood Englewood, for instance, where high schoolers from Team Englewood and Urban Prep Academy have transformed vacant lots into an urban food and flower farm and are selling the flowers they grow to Flower for Dreams.  They have business plans, crop plans, and ultimately, they are selling what they grow to their communities and beyond.  Not only is this an awesome learning experience for them, they also receive a stipend for their participation in the program.

The goal of Gardeneers is quite simple: to provide knowledge around healthy eating, nature, and STEM education. Fieldman said they are hoping to shape students’ preferences, and “through the exposure and excitement of growing your own vegetables, preferences towards healthy foods do increase through our program.”  Such an involved program requires a lot of people to make it run smoothly. The Gardeneers team of Garden Educators is “what makes all of this work possible,” Fieldman said.  They also try to get local communities involved by having community days once a month, inviting parents, teachers, and neighbors in for some volunteering.

Of course, like any nonprofit organization, they rely heavily on fundraising.  For one student to have the Gardeneers experience for a year, it costs $300.  Their biggest fundraiser is their annual gala. This year is Gardeneers 3rd Annual Growing Healthy Futures Gala, which will take place on September 6, honoring former Mayor Richard M. Daley.  The gala is open to the public, and tickets go on sale in June.

While food deserts might limit healthy choices for some communities, these gardens might be the solution. School gardens provide healthy food options, knowledge about those options, and the empowerment for young individuals to take charge of their own health.


  • Get fancy for charity: Attend this year’s Growing Healthy Futures Gala on September 6 at the Bridgeport Arts Center.
  • Become a volunteer: There are so many ways you can donate your time, skills, or resources.  Check out their volunteer page for more information.
  • Support school gardens here. Every dollar is impactful!


Game-Changing Mentoring

Game-Changing Mentoring

Being a mentor can be incredibly rewarding on both ends, but as many professionals know, time is a valuable commodity.  Spark, a career exploration and self-discovery program that brings middle-schoolers to local companies and organizations, has found a way to combat this.  Students are paired up with a mentor to receive direct guidance and to work on projects related to their interests in the company’s local office. Originally launched in the San Francisco Bay Area, Spark expanded to Chicago in 2011 and worked with 68 students that year.  Now in neighborhoods like North Lawndale, Back of the Yards, McKinley Park, Englewood, and Near Southside, 11 schools and 400+ students are paired up with Chicago companies to provide mentor relationships between middle-schoolers and professionals.

Spark students at Vibes: Mobile Marketing Solutions

Lindsay Horwood, who works at Chicago-based mobile marketing and technology company Vibes, began volunteering for Spark at her previous employer and brought the connection over to Vibes.  Since 2012, Vibes and Spark have impacted the young minds of many, providing career exploration and self-discovery opportunities for these middle schoolers. Sahrish Saleem, Senior Manager of Corporate Partnerships at Spark, says the program helps students “understand, experience, and pursue what’s possible for their future.” This year in Chicago, students are working in orthodontics, constructing remote control cars, creating websites, and even rewriting Macbeth to make it more modern and student-friendly.

Since their partnership, Vibes has consistently been recruiting new volunteers for Spark, one of which is Jennifer DeCilles. Horwood and DeCilles say they enjoy watching their mentees grow throughout the program. DeCilles says Vibe’s connection with Spark has given her an “understanding that in being a mentor, you can just be a positive presence or an ear for someone to talk to.”

In the Fall, students work in Spark Labs, where they visit a variety of companies and get to see what each one does on a day-to-day basis.  Come Spring, Spark matches mentors and mentees based on skills used in the workplace and interests of the students. They work on a project that they present on “Share Your Spark,” a culminating showcase held in Daley Plaza that Saleem says is like “a carnival meets a science fair.” Students, mentors, and anyone interested in viewing the projects the students have created celebrate together the accomplishments of the students.

Spark works with students who might not have been exposed to an office environment otherwise.  “Sometimes they are less than a mile from the office, but they live in very different worlds,” Horwood said, highlighting the exposure the students get to the corporate environment but also the insight she now has to Chicago Public Schools.  Both Horwood and DeCilles have found themselves more engaged in CPS and the education system at large because they work with individuals who are directly affected by it.

Spark students at work in the Vibes office

For 14 years nationally and 7 years in Chicago, Spark has impacted the lives of many young individuals.  To continue doing this, they rely on donations to help support the program. This month is the Mentoring Matters Campaign, a peer-to-peer fundraising campaign that allows mentors to share their mentoring stories within their personal networks.  This year, the goal is to raise $40,000. Funds help support transportation for students, background checks for mentors, and general program supplies and maintenance.

Spark and Vibes are making a very real difference in the lives of these young individuals in Chicago. Students are gaining real-life experience in the workplace, building social-emotional skills, and working on team-building, all while uniting diverse communities of students, parents, and professionals. And in the end, DeCilles says, it’s just about “being a friend to these middle-schoolers.”


  • May is Spark’s designated month to fundraise for its Chicago partnerships, and they have a goal to raise $40,000. Donate here!
  • Interested in partnering your business with Spark? They’d love that! Find out more information here.
  • Check out the program in action! Attend this year’s (free!) “Share Your Spark” Day on June 1st from 3 to 5 PM in Daley Plaza and support the students in the program.