Illinois Success Stories
The first town we reached after crossing into Illinois was Prophetstown. The town, with a population of about 2,000 people, sits along the Rock River where the town Police department holds a fishing derby every year. Newly minted Police Chief Bruce Franks explained that the fishing derby is run thorough donations, with excess funds going toward the local Toys for Tots program. The derby provides the small community a cherished opportunity to interact and come together. The department was in the midst of teaching young kids about “stranger danger”, relevant for the Halloween holiday season.
There was a major fire last year on Main Street and the community is rebuilding and incentivizing businesses to move in. We even heard an unconfirmed rumor that the people living in Prophetstown in the 1800’s petitioned to move the U.S. government from Washington D.C. to Prophetstown because of its central location within the contiguous lower 48 states.
We stopped by the volunteer fire department where we learned about the network of departments woven together across the state from Chief Kelly Callaghan and his crew. Most of the departments across the state (and across our Nation) are primarily volunteer – a good reminder that many of the hardest working individuals in our towns are only being compensated by the thanks and appreciation we show them. If you have a chance, run down to your local fire station and tell them how much you appreciate their work.
On our first full day in Chicago, we stopped by the City’s United Way office – one of the largest in the country. United Way focuses on finance, health, and education for the Chicago metropolitan area and we were lucky enough to speak with Bill Green, Shilpa Bavikatte, and Shainah Horowitz – Grants Manager, Community Investment Manager, and Program Coordinator respectively. Our conversation focused mainly on programs that were created to help provide opportunity for individuals and neighborhoods steeped in poverty, crime, and unemployment.
Chicago’s education system is experiencing a shift from public schools to include charter schools or “community schools”. The school system budget is paid out of the city’s discretionary budget but is seen by many to be less than adequate. United Way has funded non-profit organizations that capitalize on unused school facilities after classes end each day. This helps maximize the use of the facilities and bring additional programs to kids where they are, in their neighborhoods.
The City is making headway in the health sector, led partially by changes made through the federal Affordable Care Act. This year alone, 7,000 people (150% of goal) were signed up for health insurance who did not previously have access to it. This healthcare success in Chicago was comes against a tide of financial challenges where the state of Illinois has delayed social service contracts (6-months or so), causing many organizations to halt programs and/or shut their doors due to lack of funding. Public budgets have been very tight and a variety of much needed programs for civic needs such as mental health have been cut nearly in half.
The United Way and other groups are looking into filling the gap that occurs when people begin earning minimum wage, which is too low to live on, but too high to receive essential public services. The community is also looking into health issues arising from food deserts and a lack of affordable housing in the wake of gentrifying neighborhoods.
Through our new United Way connections, we had the opportunity to speak with Xavier Ramey, who thinks of himself as a “translator” between his home neighborhood of Lawndale and the University of Chicago. Lawndale is an example of a neighborhood that was able to see improvement after a history of very tough conditions – high rates of violence, low employment rates, and high segregation created by red-lining practices. 68% of adults in North Lawndale are in the criminal justice system – 90% are male.
Mr. Ramey told us about the Lawndale Community Church (LCC). The building of the LCC was a turning point for the community and many consider Rev. ‘Coach’ Wayne Gordon both a spiritual and community leader. The LCC is much more than a church: it has a gym, after school program, and health center visited by over 150,000 patients per year. The Lawndale community has begun to see increasing rates of its community members volunteering in more affluent areas of Chicago. “Everyone has something to give” said Xavier, and it helps people feel empowered.
Some examples of other Lawndale successes can be seen in the Hope House, a recovery clinic built by the community. And at The Pizza Spot, a local restaurant, the owner focuses on empowering kids through employment and soft skills training – “job training is more important than a profitable company sometimes”. Xavier’s point was well taken that, “people attract us to vibrant communities, not things”. All communities have a “Coach Gordon” – a catalyst for community improvement. And often what people need is help from within, not the outside.
We had the opportunity to attend a live taping of National Public Radio’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! This show provides millions of Americans an enjoyable way to catch up on the week’s news (and while sometimes the jokes may be tacky, educating millions of Americans every week is not). Show host Peter Sagal, himself an avid runner, told us a lot about the city when he joined us for a run along Lake Michigan and through the zoo!
In Chicago, we reached out to the Police Department, the Department of Family & Support Services, the Mayor’s office, the Department of Planning and Development, numerous individuals in the public school system, and the City Council – but we were disappointed when no meeting requests were granted.
One lesson we have learned on this journey is that there is a gap in the personal nature and attention people give to one another, which is often based on the population (size) and therefore inclusive nature of the community. At some point, a community reaches a critical mass and a certain amount of unity is lost in the process – ‘us’ becomes ‘them and us’. This is an issue that we believe occurs with governments, companies, unions, and other institutions. We would be interested to learn more about this phenomenon and how some cities are able to maintain close face-to-face relationships with its citizens.