Last week, an excited group of students stood on the freshly painted sidelines of their new soccer field. As they patiently waited for the ribbon cutting ceremony to begin, you could almost see the plans that they had for this expansive play area, a safe refuge in an often difficult neighborhood.
Columbia Explorers Academy is one of the jewels of the Brighton Park community. Columbia serves nearly one thousand students, pre-K through eighth grade. Around 97% of the students are Hispanic and nearly one-third are English Language Learners; just under 10% receive services for special education. Over 98% of the students are considered low-income. Despite these demographics, Columbia Explorers Academy has made huge strides toward success in the ten years it has been in operation.
Under the leadership of Principal Barrera, test scores have steadily risen and the school has become the preeminent location for Brighton Park families to send their children. Student awards pile up by the month, including a recent victory in a rain barrel design contest, multiple selections for the Do the Write Thing anti-violence writing project, and ticket art contest winners in an event held by the Kerry Wood Foundation. They have a renowned track team, winning the city championship five times in their ten-year history. They also partner with the Chicago Bulls and the Chicago White Sox for health programs and a Fatherhood essay contest, respectively.
Columbia must overcome daily challenges to maintain its success. Gang activity is prevalent and students – particularly older students – are pressured to participate. Because nearly all their students are low-income, the school works hard to provide them with the resources they need to be successful. It is the motivation for a safe and nurturing space that drives Principal Barrera and his staff to go the extra mile for their students. “This is an oasis,” says Mr. Barrera of the school property.
In July, during the hottest days of this sweltering Chicago summer, volunteers from Crown Imports spent two days working to create a community park for students at Columbia. They sealed crumbling pavement with fresh, smooth black top, painted line games and a much-anticipated soccer field, assembled new bleachers and created bright landscaping to welcome all members of the community to the park. In addition to all of the outdoor projects, Crown Imports volunteers also made aesthetic improvements with two mosaics, four canvas murals and five sports-themed silhouette wall murals.
Most of the students at Columbia Explorers Academy probably don’t comprehend what it took to make all of this happen. They can’t imagine the logistics that went into the planning, they don’t know what it’s like to seal black top in 100+ degree heat. These students aren’t aware that Crown Imports had to make a choice as to whether or not it was worth spending their time and money investing in the community.
All these students know is that this year, they have a fun, new place to play. A place that was created just for them by adults they don’t even know. A physical reminder that there are people in this city who care about them, who want them to be successful and believe that they are worth investing in. And in the end, isn’t that all they need to know?
To find out how your company can make a difference in Chicago, visit our Corporate Volunteer Programs page.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
In Chicago’s historic Washington Park neighborhood you’ll find the thriving school community that is (Betsy) Ross Elementary. The mission of the school is to “provide education to students that is of high quality and definitive; making each student strive to reach his/her highest potential.”
With over 98% of the enrolled students coming from low-income households and nearly 10% needing special education, this can feel like a lofty goal at times. However, under the careful leadership of Principal Shabazz, Ross Elementary is making a difference in the lives of hundreds of students and creating an encouraging environment to learn and grow.
Many Chicago Cares volunteers leave a service event at Ross Elementary wanting to come back for more, and that is precisely what three volunteers have done following their time at this year’s Celebration of Service in January. Two college students have chosen to come back to the school on a monthly basis to help organize library books, design bulletin boards, or complete whatever other task Dr. Shabazz assigns. Another volunteer brought in craft supplies for a group of 3rd-5th grade girls to create and decorate their own book bags based on a story they had read.
Part of what makes Ross Elementary so special is the dedication of the students to learn and their willingness to challenge themselves to meet their goals. The Daniel Murphy Scholarship Fund is an award designed to, “give high school scholarship assistance and educational support to Chicago students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.” As part of the application process, students must demonstrate academic potential, strong character and financial need.
This year two students from Ross Elementary received this prestigious scholarship. One will be attending Chicago Hope Academy downtown, and another will be attending Wayland Academy, a college preparatory school in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin.
The students, staff, and administration are very protective of the work that Chicago Cares does at the school. Last year, Dr. Shabazz caught students (not from the school) attempting to steal the plywood murals that volunteers completed during Serve-a-thon 2011. He caught the offenders and made sure that they completed service hours at the school for every mural taken.
You can support the inspiring work of neighborhood schools like Ross Elementary; join us for Serve-a-thon on June 9. Registration closes on June 4, so sign up today!Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
May is National Preservation Month and this year’s theme is “Discovering America’s Hidden Gems.” While here at Chicago Cares we don’t have any historical landmarks or natural treasures that we’re working to preserve, we do like to think of the gardens that we work with as special gems of Chicago in their own way.
The gardens we assist are as diverse as the neighborhoods in which they reside: some provide good green space to communities, some grow food for those in need, others engage and teach elementary students, and still others provide wide regions of nature that are normally hard to come by in an urban setting.
The following gardens are in extra need of your help this year, so be sure to look for them on the calendar:
Fulton: The Fulton Street Flower and Vegetable Garden spans over two city blocks and provides fresh produce to senior citizens and community shelters in the area. During the project, volunteers assist with maintenance projects, such as watering plants and maintaining the beds to help with overall goal of making the garden sustainable.
Growing Station: As a fairly new garden, Growing Station Community Garden is a small haven in the Pilsen Industrial Corridor and provides garden beds to residents in the neighborhood. As the garden develops, volunteers assist with weeding the garden, mulching, painting garden signs, and helping local gardeners with general upkeep.
Drake Gardens: Drake Gardens is a community garden located on the site of a former synagogue. After the synagogue was torn down, the congregation decided to have the space designated as a garden for the community to enjoy. It provides a calm and inviting space to those in the neighborhood with its bright flowers and wide pathways. Work here varies, but can include weeding, mulching, and planting new flowers throughout the season. Help keep this garden as a vibrant community meeting space! Our work here encourages community members to come out and take ownership of the garden as well.
Growth Spurt: Flowers, trees, and native plant life flank the east and west sides of the front entrance of Newberry Academy, welcoming students and neighbors alike. This garden is used as a teaching garden when students are in session, and through the summer months, it is up to the school community to continue to care for it. Weeding and replanting are usual tasks here, and it is always a very rewarding experience to see the progress made in each project! BONUS: This project happens tomorrow, and there are still a few slots left!
Beaubien Woods: This Forest Preserve site is a great addition to the city. Work varies at this site depending on the day, but may include cleaning paths, planting seeds, and at times, setting controlled brush fires. You may even see one of our nation’s true gems: a bald eagle!
Your work with Chicago Cares as we go into this growing season head on is critical in helping maintaining Chicago as a city in a garden. It’s a great way to get out in the sun and enjoy the some of the little gems of nature that Chicago has to offer.
Today’s post is by Human Services Coordinator, Amy DeLorenzo.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Located in the Pilsen neighborhood, El Jardin de las Mariposas brings the culture of the neighborhood into their garden. First occupied by old buildings and then used as a dumping ground; two members of the Pilsen Community, Virginia Dan and Teresa Medina, felt that this empty lot had the potential of being turned into green space for their neighborhood.
In 1998, Virginia and Teresa gained the support of community members to turn this area into a community garden. With the help of Openlands and Neighborspace, and continued maintenance by members of the neighborhood, the community garden El Jardin de las Mariposas began to blossom.
El Jardin de las Mariposas not only originated by members of the community, but the garden symbolizes many aspects of the community as well. The garden name acknowledges the monarch butterfly that migrates between Chicago and Mexico, which is symbolic of many members of this community. Art work is also displayed around the garden that recognizes the numerous cultures that reside in this vibrant neighborhood.
In addition to the continued support of community members, Chicago Cares volunteers visit El Jardin de las Mariposas on the third Saturday of every month. Volunteers attend to the basic garden needs and assist with a variety of projects that can range from cutting back shrubs and native grasses to weeding flower beds and maintaining the walkways around the gardens.
We hope you can join us in sharing the natural beauty and community connection experienced at El Jardin de las Mariposas. Our next project will be held on Saturday, April 21, or you can find us in the garden on the third Saturday of each month.
Today’s post is from Human Services Coordinator, Aly Moser.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
As program coordinators at Chicago Cares, my coworkers and I often receive emails from volunteers who are interested in a particular volunteer project but are wondering if the neighborhood where the project is located is safe.
At Chicago Cares, we don’t deny that some neighborhoods have a better reputation than others. We do, however, encourage volunteers to step out of the neighborhoods they know and are accustomed to in order to volunteer where the need is. Our community partners count on Chicago Cares programs and volunteers to meet their needs, and we work very carefully to choose partner sites that are accessible by public transportation for volunteers without a car.
If you do sign up for a project in an area you’re unsure about, maybe because you read something about the neighborhood in the news or because your friend raised an eyebrow when you mentioned where you’ll be volunteering, consider taking some of the steps below to ensure that you’ll feel comfortable as you travel to the project site:
- Contact your volunteer leader before the project. Your leader can let you know the best way to get to a project if you don’t have a car, as well as suggest a place to park if you do have a car. Your volunteer leader might even let you know of an opportunity to carpool with another volunteer or meet in a central location to take the train together so you don’t have to travel to the site alone.
- Like anywhere in the city, be aware of your surroundings. In Chicago, it’s always a good idea to stay alert when walking in any neighborhood. That means pay attention to what’s going on around you, don’t text while you’re walking, and put away your iPod.
- Know that every neighborhood is a community. While it can be easy to deem an area a “bad neighborhood” and see only the negative, keep in mind that the clients you might work with at the project live here. This is where they go to school, go to work, and go about their daily lives, and those you meet on the street will more likely be kind and welcoming than anything else.
- Realize that unfamiliar doesn’t always mean unsafe. Take a few moments to learn something about the neighborhood where you’ll be volunteering. You may find out that what you thought was an unsafe neighborhood was actually just an unfamiliar one to you, and there may be much to learn about this area of Chicago.
Chicago Cares offers programs in a variety of locations in the city to accommodate volunteers’ various locations and schedules, but we hope that these tips have equipped you with the information you need to travel to a different area of the city to volunteer.
As staff members, getting to know the unique and beautiful attributes of the diverse neighborhoods within our city is one of the greatest perks our job provides. We hope that you can fall in love with ALL of Chicago through your service experiences!
Today’s post is by Education Coordinator, Martha Renken.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
You’re invited to enjoy an evening of art and entertainment, all while helping our partners at Lakeview Pantry stock their shelves for those in need.
On Thursday, February 16, Chicago Cares will host a performance of Jack’s Precious Moment, the latest production from Will Act for Food (WAFF). Since its inception in 1997, WAFF has encouraged its artistic supporters to actively participate in fighting hunger by offering discounted tickets to patrons who donate non-perishable food items. Tickets are available online.
As our guest, you are invited to use the code 16CARES to receive a discounted admission of $13. At the door, you will be refunded $1 for each non-perishable food donation you bring; up to the full price of your ticket! (Click here for a list of Lakeview Pantry’s most needed food items.)
Following the performance there will be a small reception where audience members will have the opportunity to meet the cast and crew, learn more about the work of Chicago Cares and find out how they can help end hunger in Chicago. If you have questions about this event, please contact Melody Burton at ext. 171.
We hope to see you at the theater!
John Barry Elementary is one of the neighborhood schools located in the Hermosa community. The school facility serves 796 students Pre-K through 6th grade. 95% of the student body is Hispanic and 3.2% is African American, and 92% come from low-income households. Recently Barry was appointed a new Principal, Estuardo Mazin, who has stepped into a position that was held by an interim Principal for four years. With a permanent Principal, the school will have more stability and can develop its long-term goals. The dedicated staff truly believes “great things are always happening at Barry” and would like to see the school continue to grow.
After renting out the nearby Portage Theater, the energetic employees from Redbox began filling the lobby with games, snacks and goody bags. As students arrived, the team from Redbox welcomed them with cheers and high-fives, getting everyone excited for what was about to happen.
After getting to know one another with a quick ice-breaker game, the students, teachers and staff picked up some popcorn at the concessions stand and settled into their seats next to the Redbox team, ready to enjoy a screening of The Polar Express.
During intermission, students were invited to the lobby, where the volunteers had set up holiday themed games with enough prizes for everyone. Students enjoyed playing Snowman Beanbags, Pin the Tail on Rudolph and an interactive game where teams used wrapping paper and ribbons trying to disguise one another as sparkling holiday gifts. After a few more snacks, intermission was over and everyone was excited to find out what stop was next on The Polar Express!
In a matter of hours, friendships had formed between Barry students and Redbox employees. The students were loaded up with goody bags, a few more high-fives and then sent on their way. An afternoon at the movies is something that many of us take for granted.
For young kids whose families are struggling with employment and financial burdens, an afternoon of fun, games and a movie theater all to themselves serves to remind Barry students that they are still on Santa’s nice list. We’re so glad that our ‘Volunteer Elves’ from Redbox were there to make it all happen!Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
With Thanksgiving just a day away, most people are making last minute grocery runs and preparing for friends and family to come celebrate. Residents at Mercy Housing Lakefront and Living Room Café, however, had the opportunity to celebrate as a community early and Chicago Cares volunteers were there to help!
On November 17th, nine volunteers assisted in serving families at Mercy Housing Lakefront’s annual community Thanksgiving dinner. Each year Mercy Housing provides a delicious southern meal to residents at their community center, emphasizing the agencies’ mission to provide program-enriched housing for low-income families. This year, Chicago Cares volunteers were welcomed to help at the event, assisting with setting tables, serving meals, and playing with the children once dinner was over. Many of the children also asked volunteers to participate in their “I’m Thankful For…” tree, where colorful leaves noted that many were thankful for family, friends, good health, and a warm home. Residents left happy and full, and volunteers left wanting to come back to Mercy Housing again. In total, 18+ hours of volunteer hours were recorded and more than 100 people were served a fantastic meal.
Volunteers made that dinner smooth and easy for the staff and residents at Mercy Housing, but the opportunity for impact at this agency is even greater. Each Thursday evening Chicago Cares hosts ongoing education programs, supporting 20-30 children in their pursuit of academic excellence at Read-with-Me and Kids Create. Just one short hour each week provides individual attention and support, promoting positive attitudes towards learning and encouraging creativity. Over the course of a school year, almost 200 volunteers are needed to support these young children’s growth at 30+ project dates. The commitment of just one hour a week helps support the small staff at Mercy Housing as they work to improve their student’s grades and test scores, increase confidence and build self-esteem.
Last week volunteers assisted Living Room Café in prepping and cooking food for their annual Thanksgiving Community Meal. Living Room Café’s Annual Thanksgiving Meal is an all day affair held each Saturday before Thanksgiving, feeding nearly 350 low-income and homeless community members throughout the Woodlawn community. Chicago Cares volunteers cook and prep food for the dinner in shifts throughout the week leading up to the dinner.
Volunteers made the 19th a Saturday filled with fun, laughter, and delicious food in a laid back restaurant environment, where guests were able to enjoy a hearty meal and sparkling conversation with one another. The impact of Living Room Café and Chicago Cares volunteers is felt all year long throughout the Woodlawn community. Every 1st and 3rd Saturday Chicago Cares volunteers cook and serve breakfast for 25-30 community members that are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, in addition to cooking and serving dinner every 2nd Wednesday. At each project, volunteers not only help meet hunger needs in Woodlawn, but do so in a respectful and dignified manner, serving community members in a restaurant style environment. Throughout 2011 Chicago Cares volunteers have dedicated 2,100 hours towards meeting hunger needs in the Woodlawn community while serving nearly 1,200 meals.
Today’s post is by Education Coordinator, Emily Collins and Human Service Senior Coordinator, Thomas Toney.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Last weekend, volunteers across the country joined together to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11 with service to their communities. At Chicago Cares, we were honored to be able to offer over 60 service projects throughout the National Week of Service and Remembrance, highlighting issues of education, hunger, homelessness, senior services and the environment.
Our largest project was held on Saturday, September 10, with nearly 400 volunteers in attendance. It was wonderful to have so many hands ready to serve the students, faculty and staff at McClellan Elementary school in Bridgeport.
With the tremendous support of the White Sox Volunteer Corps, volunteers were able to revitalize the entire school in just 5 hours:
- All 21 classrooms, the gym and the 3 school hallways received fresh paint
- 16 murals were created to inspire students as they walk through the halls
- 2 playlots were updated with new line games, maps and a kickball diamond to stimulate physical activity
- 2 outdoor murals were painted and hung on the fences surrounding the school, welcoming the community and showcasing McClellan school pride
Thank you to the hundreds of volunteers who helped make McClellan Elementary a more beautiful place to learn!Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Today’s post is from Emily Collins, Education Program Coordinator
Poverty, limited English proficiency, family instability and poor health; these are just some of the barriers that urban students may face while pursuing academic success. Overcoming these barriers is essential to the success of each student, adding pressure to faculty and staff already stretched thin due to budget cuts and education reform.
On the news we see reports of failing schools and inadequate teachers, spreading the belief that public schools are broken beyond repair. There may be places where this is true, but I want to tell you about one school that is boldly breaking through the barrier of low expectations: Brunson Math & Science Specialty School.
Upon arrival at Brunson it’s clear that this is not a failing school. Friendly teachers greet you at the door, artwork covers the halls, parents catch-up outside as they wait for their children, and laughter fills the air; Brunson is more than a school, it’s a community.
Located in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, Brunson students face challenges many of us can’t even imagine. What’s different about these kids, however, is their overwhelming desire to be more; be more involved, be more educated, be more successful. At Brunson, students are given the tools to succeed beyond the classroom and encouraged to think about their future contributions in the world.
Take one look at the registration list for Chicago Cares programs and you’ll see just how dedicated these students are. More than 30 students are eager to stay late on Thursday nights, with 30 more filling the wait list. For these students and families, it’s about being involved, regardless of the activity. Everyone seems to know that Brunson is a place for children to grow and learn, a place for them to succeed.
For the school, volunteers bring new experiences and opportunities, positive interaction with adults, and the ability to provide more support for their students. For Chicago Cares, our partnership allows us to address community needs, create capacity and engage volunteers. And for the volunteers serving in a vibrant community like Brunson, creating a lasting impact on a child, and having fun while you do it, brings new hope at the capabilities of all students no matter where they live. Join us for Photo Art or Read-with-Me programs and see for yourself; it’s often the smallest things that make the biggest impact.
Interested in being a consistent presence for these students?
Become a Chicago Cares team coordinator!
To learn more visit www.chicagocares.org
« Previous Entries