Village's service agencies take stock

Chiefs of local nonprofits share their thoughts on meeting community needs in 2023

In part two of our annual feature looking back at the past year — and one wish for the year ahead — for the seven major Hinsdale-based nonprofit agencies, the leaders of Candor Health Education, Community Memorial Foundation, HCS Family Services and The Community House offer their reflections. The first installment ran Jan. 4.

Candor Health Education

Candor Health Education began the overhaul of its programming in 2016. This past year saw that effort reach completion.

“Every program is now infused with social-emotional skill-building and decision-making scenarios that prepare every student to deal with the challenges that they face during adolescence,” said Executive Director Barb Thayer.

As Candor, formerly the Robert Crown Center for Health Education, marks a half-century of helping adolescents in fourth through eighth grades navigate their formative years by delivering instruction on puberty, sex education and substance abuse prevention, the organization is reflecting on its legacy.

“There’s more than 6 million former students out there still in the Chicagoland area, so that’s kind of a big deal,” Thayer said.

She expressed pride in the fact that Candor now offers its instruction via in-person programs as well as through live virtual and online interactive platforms in partnership with area schools.

“Our student learning gains for both our live virtual and online interactive programs closely match those of our traditional in-person programs,” Thayer said. “We’ve had a quite a few schools that have stuck with live virtual (instead of in-person).”

Online interactive programs are self-paced for convenience.

“And students are more comfortable asking difficult questions online (anonymously) because their peers don’t know who they are,” she added.

In 2023 Candor began expanding its reach into Wisconsin — and the results exceeded expectations.

“We have been fortunate enough to engage with over 500 students in the Milwaukee suburbs this year. That has empowered us to continue to expand to more schools outside of the Chicago area,” she said. “It seems that there is more interest than what we thought.”

In September the Illinois legislature passed Louie’s Law, named for a young man who died of a heroin overdose, which requires the Illinois Board of Education to develop a comprehensive drug education curriculum.

“We have prepared materials that all schools have access to,” Thayer said of Candor’s response to the legislation. “We are improving the standard of substance abuse prevention in schools.”

She said the organization grew from 14 to 18 educators to serve some 86,000 students. With kids having access to unhealthy influences through cellphones at younger ages, getting accurate information from a trusted adult becomes even more critical.

“Our goal is to provide young people with science-based, age-appropriate information that will help them to learn to keep their bodies safe as they develop into adults,” she said.

Community Memorial Foundation

“2023 was a productive year filled with partnerships and local impact,” said Greg DiDomenico, president and CEO Community Memorial Foundation.

Exemplifying that was the opening of the Loft at Eight Corners in Brookfield in March, a collaboration with NAMI Metro Suburban and Pillars Community Health to address teen mental wellness.

“This was certainly a highlight of the year,” DiDomenico said of the state-of-the-art center, which welcomes visitors seven days a week. “It‘s open to all teens and their families, and all services are free and available on a walk-in basis. It responds to the need to be able to address the growing need for youth mental health services.”

The guiding vision of CMF is to create the healthiest region in the country in the western suburbs, and DiDomenico highlighted grants issued to four Hinsdale organizations who buy into that goal: Candor Health Education, HCS Family Services, The Community House and Wellness House.

“We have a saying that we carry out our mission through our grantee partners. We are grateful for all that they do every single day,” he said.

Programs introduced last year endeavor to give the agencies the right tools and training to thrive with an inclusive approach.

“We continue to focus on building the capacity of our grantee partners by supporting leadership development through a new middle managers coaching program and our shared vision for advancing racial equity by adding a consulting program through existing workshops, peer learning and our coaching program,” DiDomenico said.

The Young Community Changemakers program, or YC2, turned five in 2023, empowering teens from local high schools to have a positive impact in their orbits.

“We had 60 teens from Hinsdale Central, Lyons Township, Nazareth and Riverside-Brookfield learning about the art and science of grant-making and of making local change in the community,” DiDomenico said. “I learn every year from these students, and the impact has been really terrific and the partnership with the schools.”

He also detailed a study conducted in partnership with the Healthy Communities Foundation on the growing Latino community in the western suburbs over the last 10 years.

“The data highlights the demographic changes in our combined service region in Cook and DuPage counties and illustrated the intersection of social and structural health inequities for the Latino community,” he said. “It has inspired ideas and further conversation.”

DiDomenico said resources to help citizens procure basic needs — food and housing along with mental health and wellness services — are critical.

“That will continue to be a focus for us,” he said

HCS Family Services

A typical week sees as many as 350 families rely on HCS Family Services’ two food pantries.

“The biggest and most important accomplishment in terms of our mission is being able to feed the number of people that we’re feeding,” said Wendy Michalski, executive director, on the organization’s response to the need. “Record-setting numbers of families are coming through (Hinsdale) and Anne M. Jeans (School).”

That is made possible by partnerships with large chain stores like Costco, Whole Foods and Jewel, which provide a regular supply of staples, as well as the philanthropic efforts of local churches and residents.

“The month of December we probably had 15 food drives, which really helps stock our shelves during the holidays,” Michalski said. “Every piece is important and allows us to do what we do.”

In order to continue to meet the demand, HCS received approval in September to convert the old Hinsdale Humane Society shelter at 22 N. Elm St. into its new pantry and offices.

“We are actually on the road to a move, which is very exciting,” she said, noting that work has already begun on the project in anticipation of a late spring or early summer opening. “We’ve also ordered a walk-in cooler and freezer to replace our stand-up units. We’ll be able to store more healthy foods, which provides more choice for our neighbors. And we’ll be able to serve our increasing numbers with better quality foods.”

In advance of that, the mobile food pantry that had been operating in the Hinsdale Seventh-day Adventist Church parking lot was folded into HCS in July. Once the new facility opens, the parking lot will serve as a staging area as patrons wait to collect their food. UChicago Medicine AdventHealth Hinsdale, which had supported the mobile pantry, is partnering with HCS to identify food-insecure patients and refer them for pantry services.

“Then we monitor the impact of the healthy food on health conditions,” Michalski said.

Hospital staff also measure blood pressure and provide healthy recipes to pantry visitors.

“The hospital has really become a huge partner in HCS,” she said.

Michalski said HCS requires about 4,000 volunteer hours a year. Rarely is a shift shorthanded.

“We couldn’t do it without our volunteers and HCS team, who really step up to fulfill the mission,” she said.

Of all the towns in southeast DuPage and far western Cook served by HCS, the second-highest number of clients come from Hinsdale.

“It is right in the community,” she said. “Unexpected life happens to everyone. And we’re here to help families get through the challenging times.”

The Community House

The Community House has a knack for continuing to expand its own community, said Dan Janowick, executive director.

“2023 was a year of growth in so many parts of what we do,” he said.

Janowick reported that the organization served more people than ever before in its more than 80-year history.

“Many of our recreation and adult and youth programming hit milestones,” he said, citing summer day camp, flag football league and fortnightly among those posting record-setting participation. “We saw more than 30,000 individual registrations last year from the community.”

The agency’s arts programs surged in popularity as well, and its full-time counseling staff was doubled from two to four in large part to provide more services in unincorporated Willowbrook. Janowick said mental health services and more after-school activities were the requests of that neighborhood’s residents.

“Art classes, basketball camp, babysitter certification and other programs that people are used to coming to our building for, we’re also offering in that community in partnership with the school district, which is exciting,” he said. “Our program has some of its biggest impact on people who will never walk into this building.”

On the financial front, The Community House eliminated its operational deficit for the first time in as long as Janowick can remember. He attributed that accomplishment to fees from expanded programming, a successful Walk for Mental Health in May that drew more than 750 walkers and a memorable Holiday Ball last month.

“For the first time we raised more than $600,000,” he said.

Janowick said the emphasis on “serving the whole self” is central to the agency’s mission. Programs like pickleball, for instance, are designed with both the sport and relationship-building in mind.

“People want to get together and play pickleball, but they also want to stay for the social part afterwards,” Janowick said.

The Community House collaborates with the Village of Hinsdale, Hinsdale Central High School and other entities to offer offsite options across the age spectrum, particularly for teens and older adults, where offerings can be limited.

“We take a lot of pride in how we’re connecting with all the different age groups,” Janowick said.

Conversations he has with past users reinforce the vital role The Community House plays.

“The organization means a lot to people through generations,” he said. “The importance, in a post-COVID world, of staying connected as a community and coming together is really what we’re all about.”

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean