Midwest sensibilities paired with Big City living makes Chicago a unique fusion of people, economies, and cultures. The Windy City is home to an impressive amount of recreation centers, museums, parks, and social spaces. These public institutions foster such a strong sense of community involvement and activity, it's little wonder that Chicago holds strong national appeal.
Yet some of Chicago’s most valuable citizens, its children, aren’t always reached by consistent economic rise or other indicators of progress. Even though Chicago's government offices and nationally renowned institutions have teams of community organizers working to ensure a better future for our kids, it's a self-evident truth that a city is only as strong as its people. Fortunately, ChiTown is chock-full of selfless individuals more than willing to lend a helping hand where it matters most.
ConsumersAdvocate.org would like to introduce you to our top choices for youth-oriented organizations that are committed, day-in and day-out, to fostering and developing Chicago's youth. These are the people doing the hard work. These are the organizations (some large, some small, all in need of help), that are strengthening Chicago at its foundation, and providing aid where it's most needed.
Should you have an extra moment in your week, an encouraging word, an extra dollar in your pocket, or a beneficial skill a child might use in the future (tutoring, story-telling, juggling, cooking, knitting, wood-working, etc.) many of the organizations below could use your help.
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- Education & Learning
Education & Learning:
The aim of Chicago Youth Centers (CYC) is to equalize access to high quality youth development programs in underserved city neighborhoods. Inspiring children from toddlers to high school seniors, CYC uses quality resources, qualified teachers, tutors, and safe, healthy environments to equip children to become talented individuals prepared to succeed in both the modern workplace and in life. Providing programs which range from Healthy Living to Aquaponics to Robotics, CYC prepares Chicago kids for a brighter and more well-rounded future. To discover new avenues for learning, or to donate your time, money, or skills, visit ChicagoYouthCenters.org, call (312) 913-1700, or visit them at any one of their six locations throughout the city.
Gary Comer Youth Center, in Chicago’s Grand Crossing neighborhood, was created to ensure that students graduate from high school prepared for college and careers. Their staff provides a supportive and safe environment for youth after school, on weekends, and during school hours. The Gary Comer Youth Center is committed to developing the full potential, talent and skill of young people on the South Side from 5th grade through college graduation. Serving over 1,700 youth annually, their innovative programs address academics, enrichment, and college success.
With recording labs, art and theatrical studios, media suites, a beautiful rooftop garden, 1.7-acre farm across the street, and advanced computer and technology initiatives, the GCYC is committed to creating well-rounded individuals deeply passionate about their future. Reach out to their team, donate, call (773) 358-4100, or visit GaryComerYouthCenter.org to learn more.
Through my education, I didn't just develop skills, I didn't just develop the ability to learn, but I developed confidence.
Homeless children need a champion by their side more than most. Chicago HOPES for Kids aims to empower children, helping them succeed academically despite the many challenges of homelessness. Based in the Fulton River District, the program currently serves nine homeless shelters four days a week. Since its inception in 2006 by Patricia Rivera, HOPES provides Chicago youth with instruction in literacy, science, technology, math, the arts, and social-emotional programming. These kids are fighting to prepare for their futures while living with the uncertainty of knowing where they’ll sleep each night. To champion Chicago HOPES for Kids, please donate funds, host a gathering to raise awareness, volunteer as a weekly mentor, visit ChicagoHopesForKids.org, or call (312) 690-4240.
Casa Central provides culturally responsive services to vulnerable Hispanic populations in the Humboldt Park neighborhood. Casa Central has an immense network of tutors and mentors embracing multi-generational support to Chicago’s Hispanic youth. People of all cultures and backgrounds are welcome to their Child Development program (2–5 years) and School Age Program (6–18 years). They offer social, math, health, and literacy workshops, fostering both integrity and dignity in children. Casa Central recognizes the sometimes tense relationship between American and Hispanic cultures but embraces the connection by viewing Hispanic culture as an addition and complement to American culture rather than a difference. Si quiere ayudar o donar alguna cantidad de dinero, visite CasaCentral.org o llame al (773) 645-2300.
GirlForward is a community of support dedicated to creating and enhancing opportunities for girls who have been displaced by conflict and persecution. The nonprofit was founded by Blair Brettschneider in 2011 and currently operates in Chicago and Austin, TX. Each year, GirlForward supports over 200 girls who have been resettled as refugees in the U.S. through three main programs: Mentoring, Camp GirlForward, and Safe Spaces. Their Mentoring program pairs girls with adult women who serve as role models, helping them work toward weekly goals in areas like wisdom, wellness, wallet, and world. Camp GirlForward is a summer camp where girls can hone their English skills while exploring their identities in the context of the world around them. Their Safe Spaces program offers young women a safe environment in which they can connect with their peers and explore their communities.
According to GirlForward, we are in the midst of the biggest refugee crisis in history, with over 60 million people being displaced from their homes due to armed conflict. Unfortunately, it's girls who are the most vulnerable to violence, isolation, and being kept from pursuing their educational goals. In a world in need for true and lasting change on the forefronts of female education and empowerment, GirlForward is helping break down systemic barriers to opportunities for young women who have been relocated to the U.S. To learn more about GirlForward, support their programs, and find out how to volunteer your time, visit GirlForward.org.
The Chicago Human Rhythm Project (CHRP) connects Chicago kids to American Tap, a living art form that fuses African Rhythms with Irish dance traditions. Operating out of the American Rhythm Center in the Loop near the Adams/Wabash station, CHRP instills lessons in commitment, fitness, teamwork, and presence. These skills are poignantly emphasized in their four annual performance and educational programs. Working with a large group of community centers, performance spaces, and artistic collectives, the CHRP has been imbuing children (K-12) the intensive skills required of American Tap performers since 1990. The CHRP education ensemble provides two-day workshops and after-school art education classes throughout the Chicago area. To organize an event with your community, donate, or get involved, visit ChicagoTap.org or call (312) 542-2477.
ArtReach Chicago works to empower and connect people through the practice of visual arts. They provide mobile and studio access to under-served Chicagoans through youth development and community programs, as well as in-school residencies and field trips. With over 27 years of expertise in community ceramics and glass, ArtReach Chicago works toward a mission of social change through the arts, uniquely expanding access to the arts across economic, racial, and geographic lines in Chicago.
In short, everyone lives their life in a rich context and this cannot fall away once one enters an art studio, but rather should be honored and built upon.
Project FIRE (Fearless Initiative for Recovery and Empowerment) is an artist development employment program that offers healing through glassblowing, mentoring, and trauma psycho-education for youth injured by violence in Chicago. Based in East Garfield Park yet spanning the entire Chicago metro, the program was founded by ArtReach Artistic Director and glass artist, Pearl Dick and Clinical Director of Healing Hurt People-Chicago, Dr. Bradley Stolbach. By working in contemporary art media, participants progress toward viable educational and employment opportunities. For team building with their youth participants, or to volunteer your skills visit ARTReachChicago.org or email email@example.com.
The Old Town School of Folk Music is a teaching and performing institution currently headquartered in Chicago's Lincoln Avenue. Founded in 1957, the school originally featured an expanding curriculum encompassing guitar and banjo classes, folk dancing, and family sing-alongs. Today, Old Town School has an average of 6,000 students per week, 2,700 of whom are children. They offer hundreds of classes and workshops on music, dance, and visual arts for students of all ages throughout the week and present weekly performances by international and local artists as well students and staff. Old Town School's curriculum is designed for "young folk" interested in music, art, and dance. Their Wiggleworms program, offered since 1985, teaches newborns and toddlers up to four years of age to sing, dance, learn finger plays, and play with instruments specially designed for little hands. Their classes for older children and teenagers are also wide-ranging and include art, dance and movement, banjo, piano, fiddle, guitar, drumming, voice, music ensembles, and summer camp.
Old Town School teaches hundreds of classes and workshops centered around music, dance, and visual arts for students of all ages, so parents and children can enjoy the learning experience together. Their classes are offered throughout the week and are complemented by weekly performance presentations featuring international and local artists as well students and staff. Those interested in donating, volunteering, or learning about the artistic and musical traditions of Chicago's diverse communities in an open, collaborative environment can visit OldTownSchool.org or contact the school at (773) 728-6000.
Adventure Stage Chicago is the participatory arts program of the Northwestern Settlement, a social service organization dedicated to inspiring and educating the entirety of Chicago for the past 125 years. Based out of West Town, the Settlement’s success results from a commitment to treating every person who enters its doors with dignity and respect, while supporting them with transformational programming designed to disrupt generational poverty. The Settlement’s Adventure Stage Chicago (ASC) is one of the only theaters in Chicago to develop and present works specifically for the pre-teen and teenage audience. Its main stage productions place youth at the center of the archetypal Hero’s Journey in order to engage the community and inspire everyone to be a hero in their own lives. Their Neighborhood Bridges initiative, developed by the Children's Theatre of Minneapolis, turns classrooms into spaces where teachers can incorporate stories into their lesson plans and empower children to become storytellers of their own lives. ASC also offers classroom and community engagement programming that empowers youth to think critically about stories in order to empower them with ownership of their own stories. To become a Young Artist (age 9-16), join Young Playwrights for Change (grades 6-8), donate, or become a Mentor Artist, visit AdventureStage.org.
Lifeline Theatre, working mainly within the Rogers Park neighborhood, focuses much of their attention on the development of literary adaptations and creation of new work for the theatrical arts. Lifeline's Arts For All and Community Days initiatives are aimed at providing financially accessible cultural experiences for everyone. Every year, their KidSeries Student Matinee Program serves over 3,000 students and 35 schools with school-day performances. Access to high-quality professional arts experiences is integral to a child's education. Lifeline Theatre invites Chicago youth to their award-winning adaptations of children's literature to inspire a sincere love for the printed word. To help paint a backdrop, join their host committee, or donate, visit LifeLineTheatre.com or call (773) 761-4477.
Action for Healthy Kids® works with schools and parents to battle undernourishment and inactivity in the US. Their goal is to reduce childhood obesity through education and fitness. Meeting children on the playground, in the classroom or in the cafeteria, this grassroots association collaborates with 75 organizations to build teams of teachers, parents, and communities in the quest to end obesity in children. Designing case-by-case initiatives for each school and community, Action for Healthy Kids® creates lasting life lessons directed toward children and the volunteering adults. Take the Every Kid Healthy Pledge, donate, and participate in Every Kid Healthy Week to do your part in stopping childhood obesity. Learn more at ActionForHealthyKids.org or call (800) 416-5136.
Aunt Martha’s is a team of more than 900 foster parents, care coordinators, health professionals, and other caring individuals. Focusing primarily on foster care families, the Aunt Martha family works with doctors, hospitals, and service organizations to provide total health care to both Chicago’s kids in need and their families. Their vision is: “A world in which loneliness, sickness, and despair are replaced with wholeness, healing, and hope.” As they work to make this vision a reality, Aunt Martha’s seeks to lead the next generations of Chicagoans toward a promising future. They provide dental, mental health, HIV/STD testing, and women’s health services at their 31 clinics. Some of the organization’s clinics are tailored to specific populations such as males, teens, families, and children with special needs. Giving to Aunt Martha’s offers care and compassion to neglected, abandoned, or abused children. To discover how best to help visit AuntMarthas.org or call (877) 692-8686.
Pediatric cancer is the number one cause of death by disease for children, yet less than 4% of cancer research dollars are allocated to the illness. The Bear Necessities Pediatric Cancer Foundation has made it their mission to direct more funds towards pediatric cancer research while also brightening children lives. It was founded in 1992 in memory of Barrett “Bear” Krupa, who was more concerned with the other children’s illness and emotional well-being than with his own courageous battle with pediatric cancer. Embracing his selflessness, his mother, CEO and President Kathleen Casey, began both Bear Hugs and Bear Discoveries. Combining the efforts of nine Chicago hospitals, Bear Hugs offers a customized experience dedicated to emboldening lives on a personal level. Bear Discoveries, working closely with the Rally Foundation, helps fund cutting-edge research towards the advancement of cures and therapies for multiple forms of pediatric cancer. Participate in Golf for the Bear, the Bear Tie Ball, Walk for the Bear, visit BearNecessities.org, or call (312) 214-1200.
Founded in 1974, Howard Brown Health serves cisgender men and women, trans and gender nonconforming individuals, youth, and children through their Chicago-based multi-site operation. Today, they are one of the nation's largest LGBTQ organizations, providing services to more than 30,000 adults and youth each year through their diverse health and social service programs, including: primary medical care; behavioral health; HIV/STI prevention, screening, and care; research; youth and elder services; and community initiatives. Howard Brown also offers pediatric care in their clinics. Their Broadway Youth Center location annually serves 2,500 young people experiencing homelessness or housing instability by providing essential medical, mental health, and wraparound supportive services. Services are open to youth from ages 12 to 24 and are provided to anyone in need, regardless of ability to pay.
Broadway Youth Center's services include primary and sexual and reproductive healthcare, including streamlined access to gender-affirming hormone therapy; behavioral health including individualized and group therapy; GED and employment services; and health insurance enrollment, ID replacement, housing referrals, food stamp assistance, and other case management services. BYC’s V.O.I.C.E.S. program (Values, Opportunities, Independence/Initiative, Collaboration, Empowerment, and Success) is open to trans and gender nonconforming individuals between the ages of 12 and 29 and aims to improve the quality of life for young people through HIV and STD screenings, health interventions, TGNC-specific safe spaces, leadership building, and resource advocacy. To learn more about Howard Brown Health and Broadway Youth Center, including volunteer opportunities and donating, visit HowardBrown.org.
Since opening its doors in 1888, Heartland Alliance has been dedicated to ending poverty, illness, and homelessness among vulnerable populations. Today, the organization works throughout the Midwest as well as 20 countries around the world and serves over 500,000 people each year, including refugees, the ill and homeless, and those seeking justice by connecting them with the right services and resources. The organization also assists refugee youth and families through programs like early childhood and literacy, k-12 advocacy, substance abuse prevention, youth mentoring, a girls' group, and a refugee summer camp. These services help newly arrived refugee children and their families integrate into their new communities and work toward empowerment and self-sufficiency.
Heartland Alliance's Early Childhood Program serves the youngest refugees, ages 18 months to 5 years, by providing daily childhood and literacy instruction and integrating parents into the learning experience. Their K-12 Program, on the other hand, advocates on behalf of families with Chicago public school staff and administration to coordinate school registration for newly arrived refugee children, among other services. Their Youth Mentoring Program offers kids friendship, guidance, and academic assistance, while their Girls' Group Program brings young women ages 13 to 18 together for skills training, peer bonding, and academic assistance. The organization's Substance Abuse Prevention Program and their Refugee Youth Summer Program also stand out for providing young men and women ages 9 to 17 the tools and skills necessary to lead personally and professionally fulfilling lives through educational opportunities and wholesome recreational activities. To find out more about Heartland Alliance's youth services, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit them at HeartlandAlliance.org.
Northern Illinois Food Bank – a proud member of Feeding America – provides meals for over 71,500 Illinois residents each week through a network of over 800 food pantries, youth and senior centers, soup kitchens, and shelters. In working directly with community stakeholders including manufacturers, retailers, foundations, donors and agencies, this nonprofit has created numerous programs to benefit our hungry neighbors. Three of the organization’s programs are especially notable. The Child Nutrition Program provides youth throughout 13 counties in Northern Illinois with meals during the summer when school’s not in session. The BackPack Program provides students and their families with backpacks full of healthy and nutritious food to take home over the weekends. And finally, the VolunTeen Program nurtures high school students’ leadership abilities while simultaneously enabling them to give back to their communities. What’s more, kids age eight and up can volunteer for the Food Bank. To discover how to help make sure no one goes hungry in Northern Illinois, visit SolveHungerToday.org or call (630) 443-6910.
Most people probably don’t think about how a lack of basic needs items can affect a child. In fact, lacking clothes and shoes that fit can have a negative impact on children’s schoolwork, self-esteem, and social skills. It can even make them targets for playground bullies. Lynn Margherio founded Cradles to Crayons in 2002 to provide clothing, shoes, books, toys, school supplies and more to children experiencing homelessness or low-income situations. Reaching more than 1 million kids in Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, Cradles to Crayons gathers clothing and other children’s items from grassroots collection drives and corporate donations and distributes them to children aged 0-12 through a collaborative network of social service agencies. The organization also offers a leadership training program for middle and high school students teaching them how to design and implement their own community outreach programs while building community partnerships. To find a drop-off site near you, make a pledge, or volunteer visit CradlesToCrayons.org/Chicago or call (312) 767-1008.
Imagine you're a child and you're forced to go to school in shoes that are too old or too tight, or you have to wear your grandmother's shoes because of circumstances outside of your control. That's a reality for the nearly one in five children living in poverty in the United States because shoes are a luxury that many families just can't afford. For a child, that means going to school in pain, and with shame and embarrassment.
Shoes That Fit covers this basic need by providing new athletic shoes to children in need, empowering them to attend school with dignity and joy, prepared to learn, play and thrive. Since Elodie (Silva) McGuirk founded the organization in California in 1992, they have provided over 1.9 million pairs of new shoes and other basic necessities to kids across the nation. Through their partnerships with corporations and community volunteer groups, as well as individual donations, the organization as been able to help children in thousands of schools across the country.
Partnering with businesses is just one way Shoes That Fit reaches kids in need. On a daily basis throughout the country, volunteer groups like churches, synagogues and employee-run groups are running chapters, raising shoes and delivering them directly to kids in their own communities. To begin a corporate partnership, donate, or help where you can visit ShoesThatFit.org.
I think sometimes it’s really easy to forget how many people are struggling and what that struggle looks like. It is important to be a response to that struggle.
Since their founding in 1978, the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD) has been committed to feeding Chicago with nutritious food while addressing the root causes of hunger in various communities. The Food Depository has developed an impressive network of over 700 pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters. The Food Depository’s ‘Producemobiles’ also deliver fresh fruit and vegetables to low-income areas, offering aid to those unable to physically access the program. The Food Depository does a lot to alleviate food insecurity in the Cook County area; they distributed over 72 million pounds of food in 2017 alone. But they are far from solving hunger in Chicago and in need of your help. To donate to their many drop locations or volunteer your time, visit ChicagosFoodBank.org or call 773-247-3663.
The Kids in Need Foundation (KINF) works to ensure children most in need have access to the resources necessary to succeed in the classroom. Through a partnership with 41 locations across the country, they provide free school supplies to children who would otherwise go without and offer additional programs like Second Responder(TM), which provides school supplies to children affected by natural disasters, School Ready Supplies, which offers pre-assembled backpacks with essential school supplies or delivers bulk supplies to host backpack building events through community sponsorship, and Teachers Supply Boxes, which provides successful applicants with two boxes containing roughly $500 in essential school supplies like notebooks, markers, pencils, and glue.
According to the Kids In Need Foundation, Approximately 16 million children in the United States come from families struggling with extreme poverty. For that reason, the organization is dedicated to helping children learn, improve their engagement in the classroom, and increase their self-esteem by ensuring each one has access to basic resources. In 2017, KINF helped 200,000 teachers and 6.2 million students in challenged communities across the nation. In 2018, KINF is celebrating the distribution of over $1 billion in supplies since their inception in 1995. Tweet #HowMuch to share personal stories of the importance of school supplies or how much a teacher has been able to teach with ample supplies. Help the Kids In Need Foundation raise another $1 billion by visiting KINF.org.
Did you know the Forest Preserves of Cook County (FPCC) are older than the National Parks? In 1914, visionary leaders Dwight Perkins and Jens Jensen helped to create the very first forest preserve district in the nation. One hundred years later, the FPCC has grown into nearly 70,000 acres and include the Brookfield Zoo and Chicago Botanic Garden. In fact, of the 102 counties in Illinois, Cook County—despite being the third largest metropolis in the U.S.—is the most ecologically diverse. Visitors can experience prairies, wetlands, oak savannas and woodlands.
These habitats and the plants and animals living there are unique; only existing within Forest Preserve lands. On any given day, residents can explore these lands using 300 miles of trail, five public campgrounds, six nature centers, hiking, biking, fishing and hundreds of free programs and nature based activities.
Natural wonders and wildlife found within this protected public space should be experienced by every child in Cook county. The FPCC puts ecological and environment studies into the minds of all learners and adventure seekers. Programming spans pre-K to the high school senior level with both out-of-school programs and numerous in-school programs for all grades and subject matter based on the Next Generation Science Standards curriculum.
Maintaining and restoring healthy habitat for nearly 70,000 acres requires enormous monetary and volunteer support to persist in the hearts and minds of Cook County youth and residents. Numerous volunteer opportunities exist for varying skillsets and commitment levels:
Nature Ambassadors – volunteer on your own time.
Adopt-A-Site—commit to 8 annual litter clean-ups, or habitat restoration.
Trail Watch— patrol the preserves on your own time and act as extra eyes and ears for the Forest Preserves Police.
Volunteer at nature centers or other special events and programs.
Visit fpdcc.com/volunteer or call (773) 631-1790 for more information.
Those willing to make monetary donations to support youth programing and restoration efforts can contact the Forest Preserve Foundation. Established in 2006, the Forest Preserve Foundation encourages community involvement and philanthropic outreach residents. The Foundation also raises funds to support meaningful experiences in the FPCC, especially for youth who rarely have the chance to safely play and learn outdoors. Since its inception, the Forest Preserve Foundation has granted more than $1 million to engage Cook County youth in nature-based education and recreation.
I want Chicago to be the greenest city in the world, and I am committed to fostering opportunities for Chicagoans to make sustainability a part of their lives and their experience in the city.
Explore Chicago’s urban gateway to nature and science! Visit the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum to learn about the region’s unique ecosystem, discover the flora and fauna found right in our city, and immerse yourself in the awe-inspiring Butterfly Haven, surrounded by more than 1,000 fluttering butterflies. With daily live animal connections, 15 hands-on exhibits, and outdoor nature trails, there’s something for everyone.
The Nature Museum’s mission is to foster a connection between the community and the natural world through exhibits, public programming, education initiatives, conservation work, and citizen science. Volunteers age 18+ are needed for the Chicago Conservation Corps, a community-driven program that improves quality of life through environmental service projects, and for their many citizen science programs, that monitor the populations of butterflies, dragonflies, and frogs.
To learn more about the Nature Museum, visit NatureMuseum.org or call 773-755-5100.
Since 2013, the Peggy Notebaert Nature museum has hosted the Chicago Volunteer Expo as a one-stop shop for Chicagoans looking for meaningful volunteer opportunities. There are so many ways to give back to your community—find the one that’s right for you! Visit with over 85 nonprofit organizations from all over the city to learn how you can lend a hand. Whether your passion is the environment, the arts, social justice, or anything else, there’s a volunteer opportunity waiting for you. All ages are welcome at this free event.
Title Image: source.
Special Thanks. We couldn't have put this article together without the following people working to better the lives of Chicago youth: Jennifer Nau, Joan Pabon, Claire Spinti, Emily Ramstetter, Paul Morello, Kim Coady, Ashley Pabst, Lambrini Lukidis, Diane Pascal, Mayra Paris, Ayanna Armstrong, John Bannon, Mary Kate Barley-Jenkins, Jim Trumm, Amanda Faught Nelson, Shannon Page, Marcela Otero, Rita Kahn, Patricia Rivera, Kristen Pratt, Kim Krco, Marine Tempels, Dave Zibell, Robert Kauzlaricand, and Rosemary Johnson.