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.

CALL TO ACTION:

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.