Nonprofit leaders share thoughts on 2021

Agencies reflect on the highs and lows of the past year in second part of annual series

The Hinsdalean continues this week with its conversations with leaders of local nonprofit agencies reflecting on the challenges and opportunities 2021 presented.

Community Memorial Foundation, Hinsdale Humane Society and Wellness House were featured in a Jan. 6 article.

Candor Health Education

The virtual realm has become an inviting one for Candor Health Education for delivering their programs to students.

Barb Thayer, Candor’s executive director, said more than 90 percent of its courses on sex and drug education was provided online in 2021.

“We have learned a tremendous amount about each of those delivery methods,” she said of both the live and on-demand platforms Candor utilizes. “We have more bandwidth by doing virtual programs. We found them to be extremely successful.”

With schools limiting access to buildings due to the pandemic, Candor had to pivot quickly, doing so to the count of 1,800 programs provided to students across 481 different schools.

“We really did have a pretty productive year all in all,” Thayer said.

The measure of anonymity afforded by online interaction also yielded greater, well, candor among participants.

“The students were able to ask better questions than they are in front of their peers,” Thayer said.

Digital also presents greater reach potential, she remarked.

“We’re ready to expand to other markets because we know now that we can do virtual programs,” Thayer said, stressing that staff would still be based out of its Hinsdale office.

Physical changes are being made at the facility in response to the changing delivery dynamic and hiring of more educators.

“We actually are expanding our offices to include some soundproof phone booth rooms” to ensure privacy in one-on-one sessions, she said.

The hiring of a director of operations has freed Thayer up for more strategic work, she said, and a new online game portal, Pixelton Adventures, is helping adolescents ages 12-18 learn more about the impact of commonly used drugs on the developing brain and body.

“It can be accessed by anyone, anywhere. They make their own avatar, and it gives them practice for all those decisions that may come down the pipeline for them one day,” she said. “Addiction takes hold on those kids so much quicker than with adults.”

Thayer lamented at the toll the last couple of year has taken on young people’s emotional health.

“They’re really struggling,” she said.

In the fall Candor piloted a new social-emotional learning program called “Navigating the Middle School Years.”

To support the work, a virtual wine fundraiser was held in March, and a fall golf outing raised $78,000. She admitted the current volatility is tricky to manage.

“I thought that we would be looking at a much more normal school year in 2021,” she said. “We don’t know how many educators we’re going to need. We don’t know how many schools are going to be booking us.

“The name of the game is being flexible,” she added.

HCS Family Services

The impact of the pandemic was felt at HCS Family Services’ food pantries in 2021, according to Executive Director Wendy Michalski. She said the volume of pantry clients, whom they refer to as “neighbors,” has been on the rise.

“Our numbers, especially recently, have been high,” Michalski reported. “At Anne M. Jeans (pantry), we just served the highest number of families that we’ve ever served — 147. But we still had food for that last person who drove up.”

Between the Anne M. Jeans pantry on Wednesdays and the twice weekly pantry at Hinsdale’s Memorial Hall, the agency serves 230 to 300 families most weeks. Michalski, who assumed her post in May, expressed thanks that donations have kept pace.

“We are so grateful that we can provide food for that many people,” she said.

Distribution shifted to curbside at the start of the pandemic and remains that way. Michalski said she and HCS leadership were stunned when a survey of clients revealed an overwhelming preference for the curbside model.

“Our neighbors prefer curbside 8-1,” she said. “ It’s because some of our neighbors are elderly or have small children and like to stay in the car. It makes it just much more convenient for them.”

Pantry clients are provided a bag of dry goods, a bag of produce and a bread bag. Packing the bags for curbside service does require a greater number of helpers. Thankfully, that resource has been sufficient as well.

“We rely on 100 volunteers a week, and our volunteer positions are full,” she said.

Food drives are a major source of food pantry inventory. Michalski said she was aware of as many as 20 drives going on during November and December. Increasingly they’re focused on items like diapers, toiletries or paper goods.

“We’re trying to make our drives more targeted to the items we need in the pantry,” she said.

In October news broke that HCS was eying a move to former Hinsdale Humane Society shelter on Symonds Drive.

“It gives us over 4,000 square feet, and we would have dedicated parking spaces and have a dedicated floor plan which would offer ‘wraparound’ services” like cooking classes and blood pressure consultations, Michalski said.

The village is expected to consider the plan in coming months.

To close the year, 200 families received Thanksgiving meal boxes and holiday gifts were given to 950 individuals.

“Our neighbors would actually cry when they picked them up. They were so grateful and thankful for having something for their families,” she said. “We’re thankful that we’re able to do this and we have the commitment of the community.”

Hinsdale Historical Society

COVID-19 continued to have an impact on the Hinsdale Historical Society in 2021, but that didn’t stop the organization from having a successful year.

“We definitely were creative and kept people safe in executing our events, programs and fundraising efforts,” board President Carrie Wester said.

The Kitchen Walk, for example, was split into two events, a May 7 virtual luncheon and a June 25 outdoor edition.

The kitchen walk and nine other fundraisers generated more than $145,000 for fiscal year 2020-21, which ended June 30.

The historical society offered programs such as Take a Look at Zook and a Fourth of July open house at Immanuel Hall. The society’s junior board competed in the Battle of the Boards food drive this spring.

And that’s not all.

“We started a new event last year, good old-fashioned family fun days at the museum,” Wester said. The events had great attendance, she added.

The past year also saw the historical society mount three exhibits. The second, Hinsdale the 2020 Experience, was held in collaboration with the District 181 Foundation.

“That was a really fun and rewarding type of event,” she said.

The current exhibit, “Remembering Pearl Harbor & WWII, Hinsdale’s Efforts at Home & Abroad,” will remain up through the spring at the Hinsdale History Museum.

The historical society also partnered with the Hinsdale Chamber of Commerce to host its quarterly meeting at Immanuel Hall and participated in the chamber Wine Walk, encouraging visitors to become members. In the fall, the board joined in the village’s Family Fall Fest, turning Immanuel Hall into a haunted hall.

Society volunteers worked to make sure the Bagley House at 121 S. County Line Road was not demolished and organized an open house for residents to tour the home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

“We will continue to follow the progress of that preservation and share that with the community,” Wester said.

One of the board’s goals for 2021-22 is to increase the society’s pool of volunteers and donors.

“That has been happening,” Wester reported. “We have more folks involved.”

Financial support will help with the Immanuel Hall maintenance campaign, which involves essential exterior wood repair and painting the former church at a cost of more than $40,000.

The society has many things in store for the current year, according to Wester.

“Here’s to a successful 2022,” she said.

The Community House

Helping people heal and recover safely was the guiding light through much of 2021 for the staff and board at The Community House, Executive Director Dan Janowick said.

“Like all other organizations, there were lots of struggles with COVID and we asked ourselves as an organization, ‘What can we do to be there for the community?’ ” he said. “That guided all the decisions that we made.”

Programs early in the year were heavily modified, with things returning a bit closer to normal over the summer.

“One of the highlights was dedicating the Dick Johnson Memorial Stage (Sept. 9) to honor someone who did an awful lot for this organization over sever years,” he said.

Funds were raised to provide a new curtain, stage mics, color LED lights and speakers in honor of Johnson, a trustee and life trustee who co-founded The Community House Players. He passed away in June 2020.

Another high point of the year was the Holiday Ball in December, whose theme — “Let’s Have a Ball Again” — offered a clever nod to the pandemic’s effect on last year’s event.

“It was a very successful night of fundraising and celebrating the mission,” he said.

One of the initiatives highlighted at the ball is support for the Willowbrook Corner neighborhood through child care, counseling services and recreation and arts programming.

A new director of social impact, Dr. Loren Williams, will lead the counseling center at The Community House and the counselors working at Willowbrook Corner.

The Walk the Walk for Mental Health raised money to support these mental health services. The fundraiser is planned by the organization’s Junior Board, Janowick noted.

“It’s especially meaningful because the core of the people that are coming to see our therapists are people their age and, frankly, people from District 86,” he said.

He confirmed The Community House is seeing the same increase in demand for mental health services being reported nationwide.

“The demand for services is just huge,” he said.

He’s excited to the recreation programs that are so popular in Hinsdale brought to the Willowbrook Corner community.

“All families want the same thing for their kids. Just because their neighborhood is under-resourced, they need that helping hand and we’re doing what we can to expand the programs and services available to them,” he said.

That expansion of service should resonate with donors, he added.

“When people give to this organization, it already means a lot to their family,” he said. “They are helping it mean a lot to other families.”