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How Snodgrass Family Fund of DuPage Foundation if Delivering Impact Through the Willowbrook Corner Early Childhood Collaborative

Raising the Quality of Life Family by Family: The Willowbrook Corner Early Childhood Collaborative

For a family living in poverty in DuPage County, taking a new baby home from the hospital is both joyous and fraught with unbelievable challenges. As just one example of the perils ahead, consider car seats. The hospital may provide a family with an infant car seat if they cannot afford one. But generally, a baby outgrows that gift before its first birthday. Then what? How does a family choose to keep their baby safe in transit (and not break the law) or provide food, medicine, or housing? When families are stressing over such grave decisions, the importance of early childhood development can often become a back-burner issue, even when we know it should be among the first priorities for a young child.

In the case of one family in Willowbrook Corner, an under-resourced area located in the far southeastern corner of DuPage County, that second car seat was provided due to the Willowbrook Corner Early Childhood work Collaborative. The Willowbrook Corner Early Childhood Collaborative (WCECC) is making a significant impact in the region thanks in large part to funding from the Snodgrass Family Fund of DuPage Foundation through the Foundation’s Bright & Early DuPage initiative.

The YWCA Metropolitan Chicago and Community Consolidated School District 180 (CCSD180) led the collaboration with a mission to help prepare every child for kindergarten. It starts by building trust and overcoming any barriers to delivering services to better the lives of the people in that community with the fewest resources. In addition, it’s about bringing together other organizations with expertise in particular areas of need.

Some of the organizations involved in the collaboration include Teen Parent Connection, DuPage United, Metropolitan Family Services, The Community House, HCS Family Services, and People’s Resource Center, in addition to local churches, area residents, the local schools, and others.

As a result, the lives of every child in the region, who funnel into Hinsdale South High School, are positively impacted.

Willowbrook Corner is just one of many communities scattered throughout DuPage County. Large numbers of citizens do not enjoy the amenities and resources that typically come with residency in some of the more upscale suburban towns, despite being near such resources. Each community has its own unique set of challenges and issues, but Willowbrook Corner’s problems are particularly acute. Solving the challenges starts with outreach.

DuPage County Board member Julie Renehan said, “We have a community need assessment that shows this is one of the neediest census tracks in the whole county, and we know it’s one of the largest low-income minority populations.”

Many families in this area have struggled for years to improve their station in life, only to repeatedly face disappointment, barriers, discrimination, and disillusionment. Sometimes these are families who have been displaced from Chicago’s gentrifying neighborhoods. The area does not have a community center, working public pool, library, or even its police force (it relies on the DuPage County Sheriff’s department for law enforcement). There are only a few scattered playgrounds that double as parks. For the collaborative to work, establishing connections with each family is a must.

The collaborative has worked diligently to build relationships with other service organizations, including the administrators and faculty at Anne M. Jeans School, a pre-kindergarten through grade four elementary school in CCSD180, which feeds into Hinsdale South High School. An action group comprised of families in the area helps determine the types of services they need to succeed.

From this outreach, there have been many positive outcomes small wins that make a huge impact. Through outreach by the collaborative, the DuPage County Sheriff’s department has been building its relationships with the residents of Willowbrook Corner to make the area safer for everyone. Because of the connections made, more families are comfortable taking advantage of Hinsdale-based Community House’s after-school child care and Hinsdale-based HSC Family Services’ much-needed food pantry. Both resources, including a clinic operated by Pillars, are located inside the Anne M. Jeans school.

DuPage County is undertaking a transportation study to serve better the public transit needs of the residents in this area. They are isolated from jobs, grocery stores, recreation, schools, and other community services unless they can afford and maintain private autos. The study initiated by Renehan came about because of coalition-building between families, service providers, and local government.

In addition to these wins, WCECC has counted approximately 600 families that have been positively impacted by its work, including at least 60 children who have entered kindergarten better prepared and ready to succeed, lifting the entire classroom.

Marianne Pokorny, director of civic engagement for the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago, oversees the leadership for Bright & Early DuPage. She said, "Grants from the Snodgrass Family Fund of DuPage Foundation through the Bright and Early DuPage initiative have provided critical funding for so many initiatives and actions. Without it, we would not have had the meetings, the network that was needed to get things done. It was a springboard to help improve the hierarchy of family needs, from jobs to food, to transportation, to ultimately childcare and early childhood education, that was needed.”

The work of WCECC is far from complete. The need in the community, especially in the era of COVID, which resulted in enormous losses of jobs, resources, and activities for this population, is large and growing. Amy Wickstrom, executive director of HCS Family Services, which manages the food pantry in the Anne M. Jeans school, said the pantry now serves as many as 150 families per week, up from 40 per week before the pandemic. Wickstrom said, “Without Bright & Early DuPage, we would have had less visibility to know what we should be doing to serve these families best.”

Also, Pokorny added, “Thanks to Bright & Early DuPage funding, the YWCA Metropolitan was able to employ residents whose jobs were displaced during COVID to work on the 2020 US Census project through a census grant.”

Barb Szczepaniak, vice president for programs at DuPage Foundation, said, “The good we are doing in Willowbrook Corner is hard to measure. We are striving for more seats in high-quality early childhood education programs, such as publicly-funded Head Start programs that are available, and getting parents to take advantage of those programs for the good of their developing young children. Still, COVID has put a strain on those numbers. Instead, we are hearing of young children missing school to stay home and care for younger siblings while mom and/or dad go to work.”

Undaunted, the collaborative’s work continues. Pokorny added that many people and organizations working together are making a difference through the leadership of WCECC with Bright & Early DuPage’s funding. She said, “People are assisting, showing up, raising awareness…every organization is working together. The Head Start program wouldn’t be possible without Metropolitan Family Services. Without collaboration, none of this would be possible.”

To deliver more seats in programs like Head Start, the collaboration orchestrates providing more car seats for one-year-olds. To encourage families to trust in a system that has let them down over and over, they coordinate early morning “Dads ‘n Donuts” for the dads who are picking up their kids from child care after their night shift and afternoon Pizza Parties to get to know the families they hope to help. To encourage usage of the food pantry, the clinic, and the after-school programs now available, they organize socially-distanced Halloween Parties where kids can access and don the perfect costume and Christmas Parades where gifts are delivered to families who would have had none.

Coming soon is a unique resource book the collaborative hopes will engage even more families with the services they need to succeed.

Through these and other activities, led by Pokorny and on-site staff, WCECC fills seats in early childhood education programs. The goal is to help children be ready for kindergarten; kindergartners succeed in grade school, high schoolers prepare for adulthood, and adults feel more confident about their community and region and their prospects for a better life in DuPage County.

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