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.

Salonathon: An Inclusive Utopia

Salonathon: An Inclusive Utopia

 

When one walks into Salonathon, they can automatically sense the mission it is aiming to accomplish: establishing a safe and open community that forms an inclusive and creative platform for “underground emerging genre- defying artists,” as founder Jane Beachy puts it. Beachy and curators Joe Varisco, Will Von Vogt, and Bindu Poroori, and the many enthusiastic attendants of Salonathon have created this unique space for artists and performers in Chicago to express their creativity in an environment that is overall accepting and encouraging.

Beginning in July 2011, Salonathon has been hosted at Beauty Bar in the Noble Square area every Monday night at 9:15.  Before leaving its mark on Beauty Bar every Monday, Salonathon has come a long way and has evolved organically to what people know and love today.

Beachy, who is originally from Kansas City, was creating these artistic spaces in her own home when she was a college student living in Seattle. “I was trying to figure out what it meant to be a writer or an artist or how one could find a way to express themselves. I was writing all these weird stories and I was having a hard time finding where these belonged and that made me feel very bad and worthless artistically,” said Beachy. After talking to people who felt similar to what Beachy was feeling, she soon took matters in her own hands and started hosting “salons” (a name that was influenced by the salons in France), at her home monthly and transformed her basement into a theater and her garage into a gallery. Eventually she would do this in Brooklyn and Chicago.

Beachy discovered that hosting these salons was an excellent way to meet and network with other creative individuals. “I became obsessed with the format of the salons and found that I was most passionate about making these bases and finding ways to bring people together, which was both celebratory and inclusive”.

When Beachy finally arrived to Chicago she worked at the About Face Theater for three years, a theater that aims to enhance the national dialog on gender and social identity. By working there, she met many queer emerging artists and was inspired to host salons in her home again. This was a way for Beachy to get immersed in the creative community in Chicago. While hosting these salons, she worked with some of these artists that eventually lead her to manage a band called Bath House, “a band that described them selves as ‘queer electroshock’,” as Beachy puts it.

Some time later Beachy booked a show for Bath House at a bar called The Empty Bottle and asked the owner if she could curate a salon at The Empty Bottle. Instead, the owner proposed if she wanted to do a weekly salon at Beauty Bar, which he was partnered with and like that Salonathon was born.

“I never tried to do anything that frequent before and it was very daunting and scary,” describes Beachy. She met Kelly Kerwin who helped Beachy build the foundation for Salonathon and aided her in curating and hosting the events. When Kerwin left Chicago after that first year of Salonathon, Beachy met current curators Varisco and Von Vogt. Both Varisco and Von Vogt brought all types of different people to Salonathon, which helped establish this open community. Over a year ago, a fourth curator Poroori was brought on the team and introduced another type of younger community that ultimately constructed the following that Salonathon has today.

The Monday night performances at Salonathon are not limited in any way. A melting pot of individuals go on stage from singers, dancers, poets, and even just people almost venting and releasing this raw emotion in their performances and a variety of other different acts that all follow the theme of the week. “The artists that perform have created their own path that doesn’t pre-subscribe to the traditional form,” describes Beachy. “There are two types of performers that are at Salonathon. One is the professional artists that do that for a living and the other is the people who have never performed in their life and they are doing that for the first time ever. Both of those type of performers are equally valuable to Salonathon”.

Outside of the Monday evening events and performances, Salonathon also hosts other performance outlets. This ranges from curating at the University of Chicago’s Chicago Performance Lab for genre-defying artists, hosting an annual artists retreat at Camp Wandawega in Wisconsin, curating at the Museum of Contemporary Art, to numerous other activities and events that are held outside of Salonathon Mondays.

Salonathon’s goal is to present these genre-defying artists while creating this unique and artistic community that makes one feel automatically welcomed once walking through the door of Beauty Bar. That feeling of acceptance and inclusiveness is extremely rare to find anywhere, yet Salonathon succeeds this effortlessly.

Call To Action

You can catch a Salonathon show every Monday at 9:15 located at Beauty Bar on 1444 W Chicago Ave in Noble Square or visit them on their website www.salonathon.org. If you want to perform at Salonathon, feel free to contact Jane Beachy or sign up on their website.

Rise From The Ashes

Rise From The Ashes

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 risefromtheashes11@gmail.com 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.