Nonprofits share highlights of past year

Agency leaders offer a glimpse of challenges, triumphs of 2021 in annual feature

Every January, The Hinsdalean checks in with the leaders of the seven nonprofit agencies in the village, inviting them to share highlights of the previous year and a wish for the new one.

This is the first of two installments.

A Jan. 13 article will feature Candor (formerly Robert Crown), HCS Family Services, Hinsdale Historical Society and The Community House.

Community Memorial Foundation

As COVID-19 continued to mean greater demand for services for many nonprofits in 2021, Community Memorial Foundation continued to support its grantee partners on the front line.

“We focused on accompanying our grantees, listening to our community and working together to build a stronger region,” said Greg DiDomenico, president and chief executive officer.

The foundation has grantee partners in 27 communities and several in Hinsdale. The Community House received support for its community-based counseling program, Wellness House for its cancer care collaborative, HCS Family Services for its food pantry at Anne M. Jeans School and Candor Health Education for program enhancements and program equity.

The foundation also made a grant to the Northern Illinois Food Bank for the Mobile RX food pantry at the Hinsdale Family Medicine Center, which is offered in partnership with Amita Hinsdale Hospital, the Hinsdale Seventh-day Adventist Church and many volunteers, DiDomenico said.

The foundation offers more than financial support to its grantee partners. It offers training to build capacity and other less tangible forms of support. In 2021, staff conducted a listening tour with 25 grantees who were part of the foundation’s COVID Rapid Response Fund.

“What we learned from them is what we already knew — the work they are doing during the pandemic is nothing short of transformational. They are resilient, courageous, creative and so dedicated to the community,” he said.

“As a foundation that carries out its mission and vision through our grantee partners, we are just so grateful to them for all they are doing.”

The foundation continued to foster the next generation of philanthropists with its YC2 program, which now includes 60 teens from four high schools, including Hinsdale Central.

“Last year those teens chose two of our grant-making priorities as their focus — to increase health equity by reducing health social and economic barriers and secondly the promotion of good mental health,” he said.

The YC2 program is one way to help build a culture of philanthropy in the western suburbs, DiDomenico said.

“The studies show, and we have seen this ourselves, that when youth and teens get involved at an early age, they are more likely to volunteer their time, their talent and their treasure and to continue to do that as an adult,” he said.

Three families — the Burjan family, Moira and Paul Naffah and Corlyn and Jeff Simmons of Hinsdale — signed on in a new partnership to support the YC2 program.

Last year the foundation also became part of the Health First Collaborative. The group of 22 funders in the Chicago area works to leverage funding and resources to address health equity during the pandemic. The initiative started in the city and expanded last year to the suburbs, prompting the foundation to get involved.

Last year also saw a focus on helping grantee partners advance racial equity and leadership development, DiDomenico said.

“Over the year, we learned together with our grantee partners and community leaders to further a shared vision for a more equitable and inclusive region,” he said.

With the grants presented in 2021, the foundation’s total investment over 26 years topped $81 million.

Hinsdale Humane Society

If 2020 was the year of the dog for Hinsdale Humane Society, 2021 was the year of the cat, according to Chief Executive Officer Tom Van Winkle.

“We did more adoptions this year (than in 2020), but we had a lot more cat adoptions,” he said. “Of our roughly 1,500 adoptions, 900 were cats and 600 were dogs.”

It was natural shift after the surge of dog adoptions during the first few months of the pandemic, Van Winkle said, but posed a challenge in that cats are more costly for the Tuthill Family Pet Rescue & Resource Center to host and carry a lower adoption fee to offset that expense.

“We put about twice the amount of medical treatment into cats that we do into dogs,” Van Winkle related. “So some 60 percent of our animals were at the low fee but the higher cost for us. That put a bigger strain on the money. Were spending more and taking in less.”

Additionally, because the pandemic compelled many smaller shelters to close, the Hinsdale Humane Society’s services were in greater demand.

“We were getting calls from all over the place looking for help,” he said. “We were able to bring in more animals.”

The center’s veterinary clinic performed more than 2,500 surgeries during the year.

To help with that burden, the Zach Leathers Emergency Medical Fund was launched in 2021. The memorial fund for the Hinsdale Central grad and humane society volunteer who passed away in 2014 provides financial support for extreme medical procedures.

“Normally we’re not able to perform those surgeries, but now we can take those funds an we’re able to help those animals,” Van Winkle said.

Also launched last year was the BJ Chimenti Angel Fund to furnish pets for military veterans.

“We are working with the veterans’ community and mental health community to provide emotional support animals,” he said. “These animals help those back from active duty restore their mental health and reacclimate to society, just as they helped us with their service.”

The growing foster home program has gone a long way to alleviating shelter crowding, with members of the public taking in adoptable animals on a short-term basis.

“We can really grow our shelter without huge capital spending on new cages and buildings,” Van Winkle said, noting that 25 new foster homes were added to the roster in just the last quarter. “We’re looking to add a lot more in 2022.”

COVID-19 restrictions forced the humane society to require appointments to visit the shelter the first half of the year. Rising demand for services made for tight resources, Van Winkle acknowledged, but said the squeeze pushed the organization to broaden its donor pool.

“It was definitely a challenge to get the funding for our everyday operations,” he said. “We’re trying to pivot and find ways to increase the number of people that can help, even through smaller donations, so we can have what we need for the animals.”

Van Winkle reserved special praise for his staff and volunteers.

“The animals have never suffered, and that is thanks to the dedicated volunteers and team that works for me,” he said

Wellness House

Despite all of the challenges presented by a second year of COVID-19, Wellness House continued to do what it does best, Executive Director Lisa Kolavennu said.

“I feel so proud of the work that Wellness House has accomplished this past year,” she said. “There was such a shift two years ago in everyone figuring out how to do things online. This past year, it’s really been about maintaining a high level of quality service with the warmth and compassion and care Wellness House does so well for people with cancer.”

Wellness House offered more than 59,000 programs online last year, or about 500 a month, she said, with a record-breaking 47,500 visits to programs.

“It really does underscore the compounding experience that people with cancer have had during this pandemic in terms of isolation and anxiety and their continued need for support in ways that work for them,” she said.

Online programs were accessed by people in Hinsdale, the Chicago area and 36 states, which came as a surprise, Kolavennu said. Knowing more people were connecting with Wellness House online prompted leaders to brainstorm new ways to improve accessibility. One result was in a new line of programs offered in Spanish.

Late last year, prior to the emergence of Omicron, Wellness House had begun to invite participants back to its facility, offering about 15 percent of programs in person.

“Certainly the return to in-person programs this year stands out as a major accomplishment,” Kolavennu said. “We’re able to safely offer lots of in-person programs. Moving forward, what we continue to think about is, ‘What is the right balance?’

“Once we can be in person to the degree we want, what will we continue to keep online so we can reach more people?” she posited.

With the recent spike in cases, Wellness House moved all groups and classes online for the month of January and will determine later this month how to proceed in February. Individuals can visit the house in person and schedule appointments as appropriate.

“We feel it’s important to get through the next four weeks to see how our communities — and especially those dealing with cancer — will recover from this surge,” Kolavennu said.

Wellness House’s two signature fundraisers, the spring Walk for Wellness and the annual ball, Under One Sky, were able to take place in person.

Under One Sky offered guests the chance to gather at one of three sites to keep crowds more manageable. The event raised more than $800,000, the most of any gala.

“I really feel that’s a vote of confidence and support that people recognize how important this continues to be,” Kolavennu said.

The Walk for Wellness was held in a modified format, with staggered start times for walkers and multiple walking sites. Kolavennu said the plan is to return to the regular in-person event in May.

“Of course, we’ll have contingencies in place,” she added.

No matter what happens with the pandemic, reaching people in new areas will continue to be a focus for Wellness House, Kolavennu said.

“We know that’s a great way to make what we do accessible to more people,” she said.