This year has been heavy, to say the least. We have a virus, mixed in with an election year and all sorts of opinions and emotions swirling around. We’ve been separated from friends and family or lost loved ones and seen some of our favorite businesses and humans struggle. We recently lost Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who once said, “I would like to be remembered as someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability”. We believe this sentiment extends to the people who are the helpers in the community, who do the very best they can, using the talents they possess to help others rise in times of need. Come, be inspired with us by our friends and neighbors who are digging deep to find ways to help.
Joanie Jett — End a Child's Hunger & Community Santa Project
Oh, man. Joanie Jett. Do names get any cooler than that? The kicker is, she's an even better human. She is honestly one of those people you want to plop down next to in a big cozy chair on a rainy never-ending Sunday, (spiked) coffee mug in hand for hours-long chats. She just oozes goodness and an unrelenting desire to show up and do her best over and over.
Joanie and her husband own Jett Pro Painting based in Wayne. When COVID-19 hit, they had to shut down their business to keep themselves and the families they work for safe. They used this time to ramp up the services offered by their 501c3, End a Child's Hunger. End a Child's Hunger initially started as an emergency resource to fill in the gaps until someone could get sustainable, long-term assistance. They have relationships with local police and social services agencies and historically they assisted primarily with cases of domestic violence. Since March, they've stepped up their operation and are now an on-going dependable resource for families, hand-delivering groceries to 30-40 families weekly. Before COVID, Joanie would visit food pantries to shop for the families in need. With current safety restrictions, Joanie and her husband have 100 boxes of food dropped off in their driveway weekly that they sort and deliver, sometimes driving 150 miles in a day.
Joanie also runs a pro-bono legal clinic for people in dire need, especially abused women, to receive legal guidance and representation. She assists with paralegal work, including filling out orders of protection and has a group of lawyers she's developed relationships with who grant her one pro-bono case per year. She serves as a calming first-point-of-contact for people who are intimidated by the legal process.
For 10 years, she's also coordinated the Community Santa Project (formerly known as Secret Santa Program). It started as a small project for her and her friends who didn't want kids to go without Christmas, and in 2019 they delivered gifts to 950 local families. In the past, they've depended on bars, restaurants and mom-and-pop shops for gift collection and donations, but that format is potentially in jeopardy this year. If COVID-19 forces more closures this fall and winter and with the financial impacts the virus has had on her benefactors, Joanie will have to get creative with how she accomplishes her mission.
How to help: Joanie's most immediate need is with the Community Santa Project and making sure it can run without hiccups. Like her Facebook page to get updates on the project and find out how you can help. If you own a business, you could also consider being a collection site.
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Autumn Pippenburg — Art of Giving
Spend more than a few minutes with mom to 9-year-old son Aury and Art of Giving founder Autumn Pippenburg and you quickly understand she is so much more than an outwardly beautiful person. That beauty creeps through and permeates her soul. Her mind is in constant motion, churning out groundbreaking ideas and concepts that are truly brilliant, and almost always aimed at helping people in some way.
In 2018, Autumn launched Art of Giving, a 501c3 founded with the belief that cultural awareness and all mediums of art have the ability to bring people together and ignite change. Using funds raised through AOG, she founded a cultural center in San Marcos, Carazo Nicaragua so kids in grades K-12 could have access to clean bathing water, nutritional meals, fun and educational activities such as art, yoga, dance, music, English and, most importantly, a feeling of community.
Autumn is the person you call when a community need arises and you're not quite sure who to call. She always knows somebody who knows somebody who has a cousin who can help. Her brain is like a Rolodex of helpers and individuals, families and organizations that need help. She knows who to tap on the shoulder for what, and is equally willing to be tapped back to assist.
When COVID-19 hit and restaurants were forced to close quickly, she helped by taking carloads of perishable food marked for the dumpsters to city of Chicago organizations that could redirect the food to kids who were missing out on meals at school, since in-person school was not in session. Through AOG, she also collected donations and packed 55 backpacks with art supplies and 50 medical/hygiene supply bags for families in need. Because Autumn keeps on top of who needs what and who's doing what, she's able to respond quickly when an opportunity arises to help.
Not only is she constantly raising funds and developing programming to support the kids in Nicaragua, she recently redirected over a 1,000 pairs of soccer cleats from one local organization who wasn't quite sure what to do with them to a group in Africa, and she's helping bridge the gap between local charity organizations and community outreach initiatives to ensure kids have school and art supplies during remote learning.
How to help: Tax-deductible donations can be made to Art of Giving. If you find yourself with extra art or school supplies, food or clothing items, Autumn is always willing to find those items a new home as well. Just reach out via her contact information found on Art of Giving's website.
Brett Nicholas, Chief of Play & Learning — DuPage Children’s Museum
After 16 years in museum-based education and time spent as a middle school science teacher, Brett Nicholas has a pretty sweet job title at DuPage Children’s Museum that might leave you questioning your own career choices, wondering why you didn’t shadow his path. Chief of Play and Learning. Sounds like all fun and games, but it’s actually a big responsibility to shoulder at a much-loved, STEAM-based organization that’s focused on servicing all members of the community in a way that’s educational, equitable and accessible.
Much like many of us, COVID-19 planting itself in our lives this year necessitated Brett working from home for the first time in his career. State guidelines restricting use of interactive exhibits has made it impossible for hands-on museums like DuPage Children’s Museum to return to being fully operational. His co-workers are now his wife, who’s also an educator, and three-year-old son Arthur. This temporary change-up has given him the opportunity to see close-up the obstacles caregivers and stay-at-home parents face keeping young kids engaged, challenged and developing a life-long interest in learning.
Brett has used this opportunity to reenvision long-standing activities and created new ways to support families. One such activity is the popular annual Touch-a-Truck event. Typically, visitors get right up next to land, water and air vehicles, sometimes even sitting in them. That being deemed unsafe mandated a rethinking of the event. Trucks needing to be separated from the audience meant they could actually show off in a transportation zoo format. The front-end loader was lifting up its scoops, the highly technical garbage truck was impressing with its movements. Brett and his team figured out a way to make the event just as, if not more, exciting in a way that eliminated touchpoints, allowed for social distancing and kept the learning and play aspect on full display.
The Museum also developed Parent Playshop, an adults-only virtual program that helps parents, who are playing a more rigorous role than ever in education, understand early childhood development. The program is meant to give parents context on what might be going on in the brain of a young child, and provide tips on modeling behavior, how to talk through emotions and issues and addresses specific age-appropriate needs.
The remote-learning format of the school year brought about a complex set of challenges, so DuPage Children's Museum, with Brett at the controls, responded by creating a variety of STEM Labs and took their popular in-house Arts & Maker programming virtual to help fill the afternoon with engaging activities that spark curiosity.
DuPage Children's Museum surveyed the community early on in the pandemic to help identify needs and continues to answer the call in ways that are unique, creative and impactful. Thank you to Brett and his team, some who are using their perspective as parents to drive evolving content, for their on-going commitment to the museum's mission of encouraging kids to become resilient, innovative, life-long learners
How to help: Small neighborhood-based museums like DuPage Children’s Museum exist all throughout our city. They rely on in-person visits and their relationships with schools and other organizations that service kids who utilize their programming and expertise to remain open and for funding the development of content. We’d venture to guess that most of us don’t fully understand the impacts they have on our kids and how far-reaching their work actually is, but they are irreplaceable. Please consider purchasing family memberships or making a donation to your favorite to ensure they come out on the other side of COVID-19 shutdowns.
Halle Frances Quezada Rasmussen — West Ridge Community Response Team
Halle was hesitant to chat about what's she's been doing to help since the start of COVID-19 because she really believes this isn't a story about her, it's the story of a large number of West Ridge community members who came together to tackle a crisis. She's just one important piece of a very beautiful puzzle. That being said, she agreed to be the humble spokesperson for this inspiring group.
The West Ridge Community Response Team launched on March 18 as a platform for neighbors to give and receive help. One of their first steps was to utilize a texting service to make a call-out to 10,000 people offering assistance in 7 different languages. From that message, they not only received requests for assistance, but offers of support that expanded their team. They created a hotline that operates in 7 languages where they receive requests for things like diapers, formula, food, job support, and guidance in understanding the availability of resources and services. The team launched a Facebook page to communicate with followers on the needs of neighbors, disseminate information they've received on events, activities, free or low-cost resources and conduct giveaways to encourage donations. They have volunteers who make twice-weekly food deliveries, make masks, operate their hotline, translate messages. Their goal is to address acute needs, be an emergency first-point-of-contact resource that hands off to more established agencies who can offer more sustainable support.
One of the biggest issues the team faced is a lot of resources typically available were also hit by COVID-19. Fundraisers and other generators of cash flow were halted. Job fairs and workshops that typically help those in need, especially immigrants, were canceled or moved to virtual models, creating access inequity. It took a while to begin to remedy those issues, but public schools and refugee stores have increasingly provided access to technology.
All donations made to the West Ridge Community Response Team are made through Life Quilt Foundation, a 501c3 founded in 2010 by a group of family and friends who believed every child was entitled to free basic education and poverty and lack of resources was not an acceptable barrier. When needs arise, they are usually able to respond with physical donations of the items. When they aren't able to do that, they utilize the $30,000+ they've raised via donations to address the needs of the 500 families they've supported thus far.
This team mobilized and responded remarkably fast to the pandemic. But they don't see this as a group that will disband once COVID-19 is in the rearview mirror. They know if they keep the engine at least a hum, the speed at which they can respond will be must greater if a far-reaching crisis happens again in the future. They will use it as a vessel to keep their community connected,
How to help: Follow the West Ridge Community Response Team Facebook page to get updates on ways you can give or receive assistance. You can also call their hotline at 773-888-0469. The team works a lot with State Senator Ram Villivolum and he has an excellent COVID-19 community resource page, as well.
When Illinois COVID restrictions kicked in, Naperville resident Amber White, mom to Elliana (11) and LJ (3), was in the middle of everyone’s most favorite time of year: Girl Scout cookie-selling season. Her troop was no longer able to set up booths in front of storefronts, nor did it make sense to continue their door-to-door operation. This meant she had just under 200 boxes of Girl Scout cookies lingering around the house. Elliana gave Amber the idea to donate the remaining cookies to frontline workers at Naperville’s Edward Hospital. Utilizing her Facebook page and the Nextdoor app, Amber made a call-out to friends, family and neighbors and the response was overwhelming. She was able to procure cookies from 3 additional troops and not only fulfill personal orders, but donations to the hospital. With the cookie drop, the troop also delivered 30 get well cards for isolated COVID patients.
COVID initiated big changes for Amber’s family. Having a toddler at home meant in order for both parents to work, they would need to line up childcare. As a family, they decided it was best for Amber to quit her IT sales job and stay home with the kids to assist with e-learning, a concept they support until things with the virus level out. In addition to caring for the kids and supporting their remote learning, she reps a line of athletic clothes, ZYIA Active, a collection she feels is perfect for the stay-at-home workouts we’ve all been tackling.
If you know Amber, you know she’s an incredibly positive person who is always looking for ways to make a positive impact on the people around her. When BLM protests began this year, it was particularly personal for her, as her two kids are biracial. She used this time of increased racial tension as an opportunity to have big conversations with her kids about inclusion and diversity. Teaching them that it’s okay to recognize the way we’re all different, but to believe in equality and appreciate the way we all fit together to create a more beautiful culture.
These conversations spun the idea to create a mural for the neighborhood to appreciate. The mural was of a giant heart covering her driveway, pieced together using different colors and shapes. The shapes seemed irregular when you looked at them on their own, but if you pull back and look at the big picture, you can see their beauty. During its creation, Amber and her kids discussed how everyone is different—skin color, religion, gender, how we look and talk. We’re all so very different and when those differences are recognized, celebrated and accepted, we as a society shine exponentially, just like the collective pieces of the heart.
Amber hopes that the lessons of 2020 will stay with her kids. That they learn that hiccups, sometimes big ones, are just a surmountable part of life. That through those trials they will continue to support their neighbors and friends. And that teaching them the importance of inclusion, kindness and respect while they’re young will keep shifting the climate and culture into a positive direction.
Elena Marre - The Kids' Table
The Kids' Table team has been cooking with Chicago kids and families for over thirteen years. When COVID-19 hit, they had to close their Wicker Park and Lakeview storefronts—but they also saw an opportunity to reach kids and families in a whole new way.
Last spring, The Kids' Table launched a full virtual class schedule for kids ages 18 months all the way up through teens. Using various virtual platforms, their team of cooking instructors was able to connect with kids in Chicago—and WAY beyond Chicago. Their virtual classes have now reached thousands of kids from California to New York and Florida and beyond.
Their team is committed to teaching kids about healthy eating by involving them in the process. But their mission during COVID times is about so much more. Owner Elena Marre believes that cooking for others is a way to show love. While we are all going through challenging times, coming together to cook in the kitchen is a means of self-care— for kids and adults! This is a way for families to spend QUALITY time together and support EVERYONE's mental and emotional wellness. Elena also believes that because kids are spending so much time in virtual activities, it is critical for them to have hands-on experiences. Cooking in the kitchen is a great way to take learning experiences offline! And the kids in the virtual classes LOVE connecting with one another and meeting new friends from across the country.
This is a way to make true connections—both virtually and with your own family.
Because The Kids' Table team knows that fall schedules look different for families this year, they have put together virtual and in-person programming options that will work for everyone. Break up the day with a one-hour “Let’s Lunch” or “Fabulously Fall” Cooking Class. Or make dinner for the family during a virtual “Supper Club.” Fall flavor profiles include Apple Brownies, Cheesy Broccoli Calzones & Sweet Potato Whoopie Pies! All offerings are available as single classes or a series.
Do you have a story you’d like to share of a friend (or you!) doing good work in the community? We’d love to help raise awareness and bring attention by sharing with our readers. Please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Maria Chambers