Nonprofits reach out to close decade

Village-based service organizations find new ways to serve the broader community in 2019

In the first of two sets of year-in-review reports from Hinsdale’s nonprofit organizations, leaders of HCS Family Services, Robert Crown Center for Health Education and Wellness House share 2019 highlights for their agencies.

The second installment will run Jan. 9.

HCS Family Services

Stan Cook, executive director of HCS Family Services, said attendance at the agency’s two food pantries increased 40 percent over the last six months of 2019. Clients represented about 1,000 families from 24 local communities.

“We’re working hard to keep up with the demand,” Cook said. “I’m proud that we were able to distribute 600,000 pounds of food to people in need and thankful that we were able to get 400,000 pounds from local grocery stores.”

That effort to rescue food from supermarkets now includes 12 stores, with Aldi, Brookhaven, Costco and Pete’s Fresh Market added to the network this past year. New refrigerators, freezers and produce shelving were installed at the pantries to boost storage capacity and furnish space for more healthy and nutritious items.

Cook also was pleased that 200 local families received turkey meals for Thanksgiving and that 950 clients received holiday gifts, thanks in large part to partnerships with community churches and schools.

“I’m incredibly grateful for all the individuals, organizations and volunteers who have supported us. We’d never be able to do what we do without the over 400 volunteers who have helped us this year,” he remarked.

Cook said senior hunger is one of the fastest growing segments of the hungry population, often hidden in society’s shadows.

“It really does trace back to fixed incomes, which aren’t keeping pace with the rising costs of medical care” and other expenses, he said.

Cook cited one client who was able to afford only two weeks worth of food each month.

“Because of us, they’re able to have food on the table all month every month throughout the year,” he said.

In a collaboration with the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago, clients can receive free on-site counseling and case management services in Hinsdale twice a week for free.

“The counseling is a critical piece that can help them deal with whatever problems they have,” he said.

Rent and utility assistance programs are also available to help nourish households in a holistic way.

“Many people come to our pantry because they have to put food on the table. But once they’re here, we’re always providing ways for them to become more self-sufficient for them and their families,” Cook said.

Robert Crown Center

Helping adolescents navigate puberty is a tall order, but one the Robert Crown Center for Health Education has embraced.

Barb Thayer, executive director, said the agency this year enhanced its puberty program for students in fourth through eighth grades to meet the demand.

“We rolled out our puberty program in a blended learning format,” she said, an initiative that combines the traditional classroom approach with online tools.

Kids receive up to 150 minutes of instruction a week between both platforms. Thayer said the topic is particularly complex today.

“Experiencing puberty is very different than what we experienced as kids, with social media and all of them having their phones,” she said. “It’s gone much smoother than we had anticipated, and the teachers have given us positive feedback.”

The organization partners with about 650 schools across the Chicago region, and the list grows each year. Drug education is another area of emphasis, with the controversy surrounding vaping and legalization of marijuana in Illinois giving the topic greater resonance.

“We’ve done a lot of work on vaping and marijuana,” Thayer said. “We have vaping programs for adults on raising healthy teens, and we are talking about marijuana in all of our classes.”

It’s unclear what marijuana’s increased availability will mean for children, she lamented. Ultimately, the aim is to help kids make good choices.

“Everything we’re doing is connected to social emotional learning,” Thayer said.

That holds true for sex education programming, giving preteens and teens an understanding of their bodily changes, good sexual health and consent. Parents appreciate it, too.

“The program for adults on consent is very popular. It has become a very important topic,” Thayer said.

Thayer looks forward to accumulating longitudinal data as students move through the programs from elementary to middle school, tracking what they’ve retained by the end. She is heartened when partnering teachers at schools praise the programming and the effectiveness of the structure,

“We have paid attention to best practices for delivering information to kids,” she commented.

The organization will be changing its name in 2020, Thayer noted, due to a shift in its funding source. But the mission will remain the same.

“We want to make sure that (youth) are leaning skills that they can use when they’re in difficult situations,” she said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Wellness House

2019 marked a significant transition point for Wellness House, as Lisa Kolavennu the reins from retiring executive director Jeannie Cella, the organization’s leader since 2000.

“In all the ways that the transition has been supported has been a real highlight and a real pleasure,” Kolavennu said.

Wellness House also continued to expand its reach beyond the Hinsdale area with program delivery at other locations.

“We launched our biggest partner site with UIC at the Mile Square Health Center,” she said. “It’s been a highlight to see that come to life and to also dream about what the next stage will be for that.”

The inaugural Mind-Body Fest in September drew hundreds of visitors to learn stress management techniques like massage, meditation and art.

“To see people learn about ways they can care for themselves moving forward has been really significant,” Kolavennu remarked.

The annual Walk for Wellness in the spring and black tie gala this fall were successful fundraisers, she added, vital to serving 3,500 people affected by cancer in 2019 with over 470 programs a month between the Hinsdale location and partner sites.

In the last five years, the number of people using Wellness House programs has increased almost 50 percent, and the pool of potential clients will inexorably grow as more people are diagnosed with cancer each year and live longer with the disease thanks to medical advances, Kolavennu said. With 2020 marking 30 years since the agency’s founding, she said this feels like a landmark point.

“To know that we’ve had 30 years of supporting people is something to feel good about,” she said. “We’re thinking about the ways we get to help celebrate helping people and also to get excited about what the next 30 years hold for us at Wellness House.”

She is thankful for the experts brought on board this year to deliver meaningful programs and feels validated by testimonies like one recently shared by a woman battling stage-4 pancreatic cancer.

“At our holiday open house she said, ‘I hope you know how important this event is. Each year we come here and we say, “We did another year. Let’s meet again here next year,” Kolavennu related. “That was a good reminder of why these programs are so important for people.”

One wish

Nonprofit leaders shared one desire for the year ahead.

“My wish is a simple one: I hope that we can bring comfort and hope for all those that struggle with hunger in our community.”

— Stan Cook, HCS Family Services

“That the process around our name change goes smoothly, that it is easily understood by the schools and the funders and that we don’t miss a beat.” — Barb Thayer, Robert Crown Center for Health Education

“For us to be in a position where we can think meaningfully about the role we’ll play in helping people at this significant time in our history, and to acknowledge how lives have been changed, past, present and future

— Lisa Kolavennu, Wellness House

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean