United Way of McLean County

Breakfast Club Designed to Connect Youth and Community

Paul Sweich

The Pantagraph

The divide between some youth and adults in McLean County is being bridged by conversation, activity and hope.

It's happening one Saturday a month in an innovative program presented by the Boys & Girls Club of Bloomington-Normal, United Way of McLean County, City Life Bloomington, Not In Our Town (NIOT) and ABC Counseling & Family Services.

"The Breakfast Club was an opportunity to create action to bridge that divide," said United Way President David Taylor.

The idea is to connect youth — who may feel disconnected from the community — with the community through discussions, introductions to different places and careers in McLean County, and community service projects. The goal is to decrease youth violence.

While the program has started small, organizers and participants already are seeing some connections.

"Some of the teens are trying to change," Martilisha Harris, 18, of Bloomington, a member of the Boys & Girls Club and the Breakfast Club, said last week at the Boys & Girls Club, 1615 W. Illinois St.

"They need to join a program to help ’em move forward correctly instead of on the wrong path," she said.

"We're trying to build this community connection," said Tony Morstatter, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club. "To see the kids build a community among themselves — that is, in and of itself, successful."

The Breakfast Club would not exist if not for the increase in Bloomington-Normal shootings that began last year. Many of the victims and shooters were teens and 20-somethings.

Last summer, The Pantagraph interviewed teens, young adults and their mentors at YouthBuild McLean County, an alternative school for at-risk youths, and Boys & Girls Club, which has programs for at-risk, low-income children and teens, about what can be done to stop the violence.

Reports of shots fired continued in Bloomington-Normal this year.

In August, United Way and NIOT hosted a community conversation at Miller Park Pavilion about the violence. That was followed by two listening sessions with young people — one at Boys & Girls Club and one with City Life Bloomington that works with teens on relationship-building and social skills.  

While community leaders described McLean County as caring, friendly and diverse, youth described it as boring, unsafe and dangerous.

"We are trying to bridge that disconnect," said United Way consultant Kathleen Lorenz.

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.

Group Focuses on Bringing Dignity, 'Personal Capacity' to Charity Efforts

Representatives of local non-profits, agencies, and churches joined Monday to explore new ways to help the community’s disadvantaged, disenfranchised, and currently disconnected – and, perhaps more importantly, help them help themselves.

And while one local minister at Home Sweet Home’s (HSH) Forging A Better Way meeting on Bloomington’s east side emphasized “there isn’t a single person here who’s being ‘served,’” he and others agreed those who need essential services and assistance should play an expanded role in determining how local charities structure and administer them.

"The Forging a Better Way task force has outlined the goal of restoring a sense of dignity, worth, and personal capacity to our charitable systems,” concluded participant Luella Mahannah, counseling director of Integrity Counseling, on Bloomington’s west side. “At the meeting tonight, it became clear that we must include the ‘consumers’ of charitable services in developing and delivery of such systems. To not engage those in need will lead to continuing to develop mechanisms that could likely be enabling rather than empowering."

Working off major focus areas identified recently by an HSH steering committee, the group explored issues including:

* Money/Income-related interests (debt reduction/asset building, loan alternatives, fiscal fitness, employment opportunities, etc.). A major focus of the group Monday was the importance of developing low-income finance alternatives to local “payday loan” services that according to New Covenant Community church Social Justice Group representative Pam Lubeck too often “jack up” weekly fees, exacerbating already burdensome debt. That “snowball effect” impacts the financial stability of many families dependent on payday lenders, HSH’s Matt Burgess stressed.

Mid-Illini Credit Union, which operates a branch at Bloomington’s Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church, offers low-volume loans free of fees to neighborhood residents, while Next Step, a partnership between Mid Central Community Action, United Way of McLean County, Heartland Community College, and the University of Illinois College of Law provides free services to help individuals and families gain financial independence. HSH’s Faith and Finance classes help the mission’s displaced and disadvantaged clients learn about budgeting, spending, and future saving – Burgess reported eight to nine individuals recently completed a recent class conducted at Bloomington’s The Hub.

Monday’s participants also were enthusiastic about the possibility of “microloan” programs similar to international financing options that can help launch promising but income-strapped enterprises. Such programs have spurred development of small-scale, grassroots local businesses in Africa, Asia, and South America, and participants suggested they could be used as an “incubator” for cooperative neighborhood economic development.

“When you invest in micro-credit, you get your money back,” Lubeck noted.

She and others agreed financial education and awareness should begin early, so teens receiving their first paycheck can start from a position of security. Afterschool programs and school-based curricula and extracurricular activities could help offer that education.

* Health concerns (both physical and mental health, as well as issues relating to substance abuse recovery). Even as new health care law rolls out slowly to improve options for low-income Americans, a number of key issues face disadvantaged communities, including coordination of services, basic transportation to and from health care providers and resources, state funding cuts that endanger preventive programs that help reduce future health care costs, and the impact of mental health issues on employment, housing, and law enforcement/incarceration.

Especially challenging are the issues of health care access – first-time and low-income mothers-to-be currently must travel to Peoria for prenatal services and counseling – and cost – health insurance premiums remain high, and as one participant said, even out-of-pocket deductibles that lower premium costs “clobber” low-income families.

HSH is helping address the needs of essentially landlocked west side residents through its mobile health unit that travels the community twice a month, with two exam rooms. The McLean County Board of Health’s Cory Tello notes that each month, doctors visit Normal’s Fairview School – the area’s currently sole “community school” that serves as a hub for supplemental medical and other area services. She maintained additional community schools could help multiply health options for the Twin Cities.

Fundamentally, Bloomington-Normal’s underserved communities need “a full continuum of services, from pre-birth to senior care,” Tello maintained. Community colleges and area universities could play a role in expanding low-cost or non-profit services while training future providers.

* “Neighboring” concerns – how to be a good neighbor within the community. Local churches, organizations such as HSH the Boys and Girls Clubs, and schools already cooperate in providing outreach and support for disadvantaged youth and others throughout the community, but Monday’s participants saw the need to developing new mentoring relationships, referral options for providing ride assistance for low-income or physically challenged residents, and art programs that could inspire and “empower” young people.

Bloomington’s John M. Scott Health Resource Center handles transit where needed for maternal and child visits; Faith in Action is an interfaith network of volunteers, churches, and community organizations that assist individuals over 60 and their caregivers. The McLean County YWCA’s Stepping Stones program counsels victims of sexual assault, and Integrity Counseling and Heart to Heart offer mental health services at rates low-income clients can afford.

But costs again are a key factor in expanding or even maintaining existing services. John Scott lost its vision program in December, and there currently are no convenient transportation options for Medicaid patients who must travel to Peoria for oral surgery.