Poverty in McLean County is 'Bigger Than We Think'

Colleen Reynolds


McLean County’s median household income is almost $65,000, but panelists at a McLean County League of Women Voters forum Tuesday night said despite that, the problem of poverty is creating waiting lists for social service agencies and leaving some people without help.

Lisa Hirtzig was among those who shared their personal stories. Hirtzig was in a women’s shelter with a broken neck when she learned about the YWCA’s Labyrinth House which provides transitional housing for formerly imprisoned women. Hirtzig grew up in foster care and went from one abusive relationship to the next.

"I lost my job. I lost my home which made me lose my car. Losing my car, I had no way to get to anything," she said. "It really put me down. I had nothing ... nobody," she told a packed Community Room at the Normal Public Library. 

Starla Hays has been at Mayors Manor in Bloomington for nearly three years. The 26-unit apartment building provides permanent, supportive housing to formerly homeless, single adults. Hays was married for 22 years and after a divorce, she turned to drugs and alcohol and her downward spiral began.

"Mayors Manor saved my life," she said wiping tears from her eyes.

"I don't want you to feel sorry for me, I just want you to help because there are so, so many out there," she said referring to others who need assistance, often because one crisis was amplified by poverty and a lack of resources.

"We have working poor in McLean County. People are working two jobs and still are in poverty," said Mayors Manor Representative Tasha Davis.

Illinois State University graduate student Jeanna Campbell explained why she started the School Street Food Pantry. While she was an undergraduate, Campbell found herself working for poverty-level wages and scrounging for food. As a Type 1 diabetic, she also had costly prescriptions that she bought instead of groceries, only to find her blood sugar falling to dangerously low levels when she had nothing to eat at the end of the month.

Campbell said she wound up taking an even lower-paying job to qualify for government assistance when she encountered health problems and had no more sick days.

"It was definitely a cycle and a situation that left me in a bad place."

According to the Heartland Alliance, slightly more than 21,200 people in Mclean County live in poverty. Center for Hope Ministries Outreach Coordinator Pat Turner, who fled Chicago public housing, said poverty is a multiplier because those in it can't rely on personal resources to get past a setback.

"It's bigger than we think," Turner declared as she pointed out her ministry served 4,600 individuals in its food pantry last year.

Turner believes lawmakers need to enact legislation that addresses some of the root causes of poverty.

"Racial injustice, ageism, sexism, inequality, classism—those are the things that feed into poverty and leave people feeling hopeless," she said.

Turner, who is also a candidate for Normal Town Council, suggested public policy makers need to initiate systematic changes.

"We've got to get on the preventive end. We've got to start building families. We've got to start investing in our young people and start on the solutions side instead of dealing with it on the crisis side," she said.

Moderator Laurie Bergner of the League of Women Voters of McLean County agreed with an audience member who suggested with so many new minorities in leadership positions in Springfield, now is a good time to start lobbying for legislative changes including raising the minimum wage.

Bergner advised panelists to form a lobbying coalition.

"I think going in groups is important because you have a better chance you'll be listened to," she said.

Personal Stories Raise Awareness of Racism

Edith Brady Lunny

The Pantagraph

Racism is a mean and unwelcome visitor to many lives in McLean County and ignoring its presence allows it to linger and scar those who may not be able to defend themselves from the pain it leaves behind.

That was the sentiment expressed by panelists at a forum Tuesday sponsored by the McLean County League of Women Voters and several other groups. They used their personal stories to illustrate a need to be aware of racism in the community.

Gaynett Hoskins, a counselor with Labyrinth Outreach for Women, said her family had to make some dramatic adjustments when they moved to Bloomington 10 years ago from Chicago.

"The first time we had to deal with racism was when we came to Bloomington," said Hoskins, who keeps her three children close to home for fear they will be the victims of discrimination.

On a rare occasion when Hoskins allowed her two sons to walk to a nearby store, she followed behind. It wasn't long before "the police walked right up to them," said Hoskins. She intervened, concerned that officers were relying on stereotypes of young black males.

Michael Donnelly, community impact director with United Way of McLean County, recalled a Danvers police officer who stopped him as he exited a drive-thru lane at a restaurant on West Market Street several years ago.

The interaction became heated when Bloomington officers arrived andDonnelly's wife was told to "shut up or you'll be next." Donnelly said the dispute was related to a legal issue he thought he had resolved.

Sharon Warren, a special education teacher with Bloomington District 87, is the mother of 10 children, including eight who are not white and adopted. Bloomington has offered her children diversity that they missed in Iowa, but the family has been the target of racism, said Warren.

Unfortunate encounters involve "people who don't realize that racism is alive and well in Bloomington," said Warren.

Warren and her husband have talked to their black sons about being careful, especially when stopped by police — discussions the parents did not have with their older, white children.

The Warrens advised their sons "to lay down in the dirt if they tell you to lay in the dirt," because refusing to cooperate with police can have bad consequences. "They will do what they want and you won't be getting up," said Warren.

Martha Hunter, a lifelong Bloomington resident who was raised during segregation, recalled being forced to use the back door of local restaurants and being shut out of a job at a major insurance company.

Dontae Latson, president and CEO of YMCA McLean County, came to Bloomington three ago from North Carolina. The forum that drew about 150 people to the Normal Public Library is "a good first step that has to lead to true dialogue," said Latson.

Art Taylor, diversity and inclusion director for Claim Shared Services at State Farm, moderated the forum that was co-sponsored by the Bloomington-Normal Humanist Group, Not in Our Town, First Christian Church and the Unitarian Universalist Church.

Study: Income Security Key for Formerly Incarcerated Women

Through a sociology class project, Illinois State University Stevenson Center for Community and Economic Development graduate students are assisting previously incarcerated women in Bloomington-Normal in regaining their independence and attaining a consistent income.

Through a partnership with Labyrinth Outreach Services, organized by Illinois State Professor Joan Brehm and supported by a Pohlmann Family Development grant, students have been researching issues relating to previously incarcerated women in the community. Caroline Moe, a Peace Corps Master’s International student, maintains that the project is a step in the right direction for this underserved portion of the community.

“Unfortunately, there is significant income inequality and lack of opportunity for those living below the poverty line,” Moe said. “In McLean County, 14.2 percent of the population live below this line, including many of the women Labyrinth serves. This partnership provides an opportunity for us to gain real-world experience in community development as well as feeling like we are actually accomplishing something.”

The 18 students formed two groups: a microbusiness research team and an employment hiring practices team. Despite their grueling school schedules, both teams worked hard to bring hope for these struggling women.

“This project has been a great insight into the collaboration involved in executing community development projects,” said Peace Corps Master’s International student Jessie Linder. “We’ve gotten to network and collaborate with members in many different sectors of the community and gotten to see firsthand how exciting a project can be when you get community members involved. I’ve found that it isn’t nearly as important to have the answer, as it is to figure out what the community’s answer is.”

Some students, like Peace Corps Fellow Nick Canfield, have never experienced formal community development research. Thanks to this all-encompassing project, students like Canfield have been able to broaden their knowledge base in order to serve others.

“Although I had done community development programs during my Peace Corps experience in Pohnpei, Micronesia, I had not worked integrally with a large group toward presenting important and meaningful research to organizations,” Canfield said. “This project is directly geared towards creating methods to answer big questions which have real-world implications, and it has greatly improved my knowledge of research methods, project implementation, and community development.”

The students have been seeking donations to raise $5,000 so that Labyrinth can launch a social enterprise, the Clean Slate Project. The goal of the Clean Slate Project is to empower the women to make positive changes in their lives while gaining valuable professional skills in preparation for transitioning into the workforce. Individuals interested in making a donation should contact Linder.

Linder, Moe, and Applied Community and Economic Development Fellow Mel Johnston-Gross are project coordinators for this outreach effort. “To begin this portion of the project, we had to look at the starting group and the feasibility of this actually working,” Moe said. “This has proven to be very difficult, but we know it will be worth it in the end. Sometimes, it really is the little things like finishing a request for donation letter that really makes us feel good about our work, even when we are feeling overwhelmed.”

The students presented their research findings to Labyrinth December 8 at a public forum.

“I hope the findings will help them to better assist formerly incarcerated women to successfully re-enter society,” Canfield said.

According to the study, incarcerated women tend to be involved in non-violent crimes, have a
history of abuse and/or drug use, and tend to be of a lower socio-economic status. The crimes
women get arrested for most often correspond to their lower social and economic status.

"The racial divisions are also stark," the analysis stated. "One study reported that black women are over seven times more likely to be incarcerated than white women. On average, women earn lower wages and are less likely to be employed.

The study focused on three key case studies that show how a social enterprise model might work and be successful. The three case studies students chose were the Women’s Denver Bean Project, Thistle Farms, and the Delancey Street Foundation.  All three organizations are applicable to Bloomington's Labyrinth because they focus on similar populations and use a social enterprise model.

The study focused on three key case studies that show how a social enterprise model might work and be successful. The three case studies students chose were the Women’s Denver Bean Project, Thistle Farms, and the Delancey Street Foundation.  All three organizations are applicable to Bloomington's Labyrinth because they focus on similar populations and use a social enterprise model.

"Chronic unemployment may be explained in part by a lack of educational attainment which
keeps them from being competitive for living-wage jobs. One study found that less than half of
the incarcerated women in the study had completed high school. The implication for women reentering the community is a return to the same social circumstances
which influenced their original criminogenic behavior."

Campbell Grabill-Homan Peace Price Winner

Mary Campbell has been named this year's recipient of the Grabill-Homan Community Peace Prize.

Campbell is a social work professor emerita and co-founder of Labyrinth Outreach Services to Women, which helps women released from jail or prison.

The prize is awarded by the Illinois State University Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies Program for achievements in peacemaking, leadership, initiative, activism, and inspiration within the Bloomington-Normal community.

Throughout her more than 30 years of teaching, she exposed students issues of poverty, homelessness and social justice. She has continued working on those issues individually and through various organizations.

In addition to helping to found Labyrinth, she is a co-director of its board. Labyrinth assists the women in finding housing, education, job training and family support services.

Campbell is also involved with Friends Forever, which has brought Muslim and Jewish youths from Israel to this area to live together as part of an ongoing international program to improve cultural understanding.

Environmental projects in which she has been involved include volunteering at Sugar Grove Nature Center and helping establish the M.J. Rhymer Nature Preserve.

The peace prize is named for ISU emeritus history professors Joseph Grabill and Gerlof Homan, who helped establish ISU's Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies Program.

Campbell received a plaque on Monday and a $250 donation to the Mary Campbell Fund at ISU, which helps students with travel expenses for attending conferences.

Labyrinth to Present 'Clean Slate' as Opportunity for Formerly Incarcerated

Labyrinth Outreach Services to Women will be showcasing its natural cleaning product microbusiness idea "Clean Slate" as an employment option for formerly incarcerated women in our community at the Community Innovation Fair, from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday in Bloomington’s Friendship Park Neighborhood Area.

The fair will bring together local residents, community stakeholders, investors, and nonprofit organizations for a showcase of new ideas as well as entertainment for the whole family.

Labyrinth is a grassroots non-profit serving women transitioning from prison into the community or residents with involvement in the legal system.

It provides counseling, case management/referrals, prison visits, mentoring, and outreach services to these women.

Restaurants Help Labyrinth Outreach

A pair of Twin Cities restaurants next month will help feed the need to support formerly incarcerated women working to reintegrate into the community.

On March 2, Rosati’s Pizza in Normal is donating 25 percent of its dine-in sales and 20 percent of carry-out and delivery sales to Labyrinth Outreach Services  to Women, for patrons who mention Labyrinth when ordering. Contributions will be made for orders placed all day.

And then, on March 31, Noodles & Company in Normal will donate 10 percent of the value of all purchases between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. to the organization.

Labyrinth is a not-for-profit, 501(c)(3) organization that provides long term supportive services to women from McLean County who have been incarcerated or are on probation. It collaborates with all available local social service agencies to assist women in remaining free of future court involvement. The goal is to significantly reduce criminal recidivism in McLean County.

Labyrinth recently received funding via two grants. The Illinois Prairie Community Foundation- Women to Women fund will support pre-employment/"soft" skills this spring, while the State Farm Bank Foundation will help Labyrinth continue classes exposing women to non-traditional employment and trades this summer and fall.

Escaping the Labyrinth: Second Chances, New Opportunities

A labyrinth is a complex maze, virtually inescapable without an understanding of the rules and the system. For many women attempting to start anew following incarceration or imprisonment,

Bloomington-based Labyrinth Outreach Services to Women provides support for women in McLean County returning home from prison or the McLean County Jail. It’s the only such resource of its kind for Bloomington-Normal and surrounding communities.  Labyrinth assists women in securing state identification, transportation, employment preparation; housing, food, and clothing resources; medical and prescription assistance; GED, education, and job training linkages;  long-term counseling and case management; family reunification including parenting resources; a spiritual community of their choice; a support system; and special opportunities when available, such as vocational training, art therapy, and holiday gatherings.

Labyrinth’s first vocational training program – Breaking the Cycle of Female Ex-Offender Employment --  was held this summer with six women graduating. The classes explored résumé development, interviewing, financial literacy, explaining a criminal record, and exposed students to careers that are traditionally considered “a man’s job” but can lead to economic stability and successful careers. As a result, Labyrinth clients could find solid, well-paying work as electricians or welders or in landscaping, carpentry, sheet metal, plumbing, farming, construction, or maintenance.

But despite advanced opportunities and community-based support, Labyrinth Program coordinator and case manager Kristin Manzi notes continued wariness of or prejudice toward even long-released ex-offenders. In the following interview excerpt, Manzi  stressed ex-offenders will continue to live in the community “regardless of whether we make opportunities better,”  and pled a second chance for individuals who could prove an asset to an employer. Check out Labyrinth at, and listen to the entire interview at