Studying journalism and computer science at Northwestern University brought me a train ride away from Chicago. In addition to covering city government for The Daily Northwestern, I explored the city’s rich neighborhoods and taught a computer literacy class for Spanish-speaking immigrants.
I also worked for a non-profit in Los Angeles during the summer of 2010 and documented the salary scandal involving officials in the incorporated city of Bell erupted.
This article was co-written with Medill classmate Alex Rudansky (@alexandra_kane) as part of a series using databases to analyze Will County, Illinois.
As Will County’s population and poverty rates increase, the number of households receiving government aid from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has risen from 2 percent to 8 percent in the last decade, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Of the more than 80,000 people in Will County who are “food insecure,” 57 percent have incomes that are too high to qualify for government aid, said Donna Lake, a spokeswoman for Northern Illinois Food Bank (NIFB).
“There’s a growing number of people who are not eligible for food stamps that need food assistance,” Lake said. “They find themselves food insecure, which means at some point they don’t have enough food to feed their family.”
Currently 8 percent of Will County households receive aid from SNAP, compared with 1 percent in Cook County and 13 percent in Kankakee, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Only a third of the households below the poverty level receive SNAP benefits in Will County, compared to roughly 50 percent in Kankakee and Cook counties.
Lifelong Will County resident Ellistine Yarborough was shopping at Certified Warehouse Foods in downtown Joliet and said she “would love to” receive aid from SNAP. The problem? She makes too much money. As a retiree, Yarborough said her social security benefits put her above the threshold to qualify for the program. Meanwhile, her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren all use LINK cards, a government issued debit card, to redeem their SNAP benefits, she said.
Certified Warehouse Foods is one of many stores in the Joliet region to accept LINK cards and also offers a food voucher program with local aid organizations such as the Salvation Army. The organizations pay Certified Warehouse Foods in advance for food vouchers, which they distribute to people in need, said Ken Clymer, who has overseen the voucher program for 24 years as owner of Certified Warehouse Foods.
“It’s [the voucher program] a way for the consumer in this area to get the items they need,” Clymer said.
More than 60,000 people each week rely on food from the NIFB, a 65 percent increase from 2006, according to data provided by the organization. NIFB distributes food to 55 organizations in Will County, Lake said.
In the last year, the federal government supplied 18 percent of NIFB’s food and 12 percent of their overall funding. This support is expected to be cut in half within the next year, Lake said.
The food bank is already feeling the repercussions.
“In September, the food was 60 percent less than what we received in the previous year.”
Daniel Simmons, a pastor and lieutenant for the Joliet Salvation Army, said the need for food in the area is high, even for those on SNAP.
“Food goes pretty quickly even if you do get food stamps,” he said. “People are like ‘I ran out for the month in a few weeks.’ They’re struggling still.”
Two years ago, Lachi Pokhrel attended school in a building made out of bamboo and mud. She and her classmates had no desks; they sat on a carpet and read textbooks printed in English.
Pokhrel’s parents were political refugees from Bhutan. Pokhrel spent the first 16 years of her life in Nepal, where she lived in a small tent with her family amidst a camp of other Bhutanese refugees.
St. Gregory constantly on search for funds
The gym of St. Gregory High School echoed with noise on a recent Saturday, weeks after final game of the Greyhounds’ basketball season was played. Long tables occupied the old hardwood basketball court as speakers blared dance music and guests consumed boxes upon boxes of pizza.
It was trivia night at the catholic high school.
The St. Gregory Associates Board, a group of young professionals that has raised funds for the Edgewater high school for the last two and a half years, organized the event. Past events include wine tastings and golf outings, all with the purpose of supporting the 74-year-old private high school in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood.
“There’s a big rush to get young professionals to support schools and support causes so you’ll see boards like this pop up around the city,” said Tony DeSapio, a member of the St. Gregory board of directors who also served as the emcee of the trivia competition.
The event raised nearly $20,000, enough to pay a year’s worth of tuition for three students at St. Gregory.
Fundraisers and relationships with donors are vital for parochial schools, which do not receive funding from public school districts. Instead, St. Gregory seeks grants and alumni donations to supplement the revenue it receives from student tuitions, said development director Mary Linder.
“We do scholarships based on need all across the board,” Linder said. Some students also secure funding from sources outside the school through programs like Horizons for Youth and LINK, which assists economically disadvantaged African American youth. According to Linder, 80 percent of St. Gregory students require tuition assistance.
Enrollment at the traditionally small Catholic school dwindled to 127 students for the current school year. The 256 Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago saw a 1.5 percent decrease in enrollment in the 2009-10 school year, according to a spokesperson.
Although Head of School Lori Deichstetter has complete decision-making power at St. Gregory, the Archdiocese of Chicago, which oversees Catholic schools in Cook and Lake counties, does provide some financial assistance. The Archdiocese contributed 13 percent of St. Gregory’s $1.8 million budget in 2007-08, the most recent year for which financial records were available. The school received $1.1 million in tuition during the same school year.
“The archdiocese has a lot of support mechanisms for a lot of their schools,” said Deichstetter, who spent much of her 27-year career working in public education.
“Public schools rely on state or public dollars and the challenge is when you have to lobby for that money to stay in place,” she said. “It’s a different kind of relationship building, but in education you always have to fight for dollars everywhere.
Today, Pokhrel is a senior at St. Gregory the Great High School. She surfs the internet in the school’s 4-story building at 1677 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. She is Hindu at a Catholic high school.
“At first I didn’t know the difference between public and private, I didn’t even know what is a Christian,” said Pokhrel, who attended Sullivan High School in Rogers Park, a public school, before taking the St. Gregory entrance exam last year.
There are dozens of stories much like Pokhrel’s within the halls of St. Gregory, which educates 127 students from 22 countries and 10 different religions, according to Head of School Lori Deichstetter. Students also travel from across the wide cultural world of Chicago – members of the student body reside in 48 neighborhoods on the north, south and west sides of the city, some traveling more than two hours to attend the small private school in Andersonville every day.
However, students and faculty claim the diverse population at St. Gregory does not prevent communities from forming on campus. With a ratio of about one teacher for every 11 students in a classroom, one-on-one opportunities with advisors and classmates abound, allowing teenage students to blend into a new environment.
“The teachers are like not only teachers but an uncle or aunt,” said Henry An, a senior who moved to Lincolnwood from Seoul, South Korea at age 17. “My friends are like brothers or sisters.”
The scattered St. Gregory student body also brings a list of unique challenges for administrators. According to development director Mary Linder, 80 percent of the student body requires tuition assistance. Special needs students make up 21 percent of the student body. Stresses ranging from learning a new language and paying the $7,000 annual tuition to feeling isolated from classmates living in different neighborhoods fall into administrators’ hands.
“We’re dealing with kids who, in a lot of different ways, are really looking to change the course of their lives,” said George Isaacson, who spent 26 years teaching in the Chicago Public Schools before becoming the assistant principal of St. Gregory in July. “We have conversations about keeping them alive. There are conversations I’ve never had in my life.”
The school has not always faced such challenges. St. Gregory was intended as a neighborhood Catholic grade school and high school when it first opened as the first coed school in the Archdiocese of Chicago 74 years ago. The current building was constructed in 1955 and the high school saw its highest enrollment 18 years later when 500 students attended, according to the school’s website.
Significant changes have occurred in the past decade as St. Gregory extended its reach far beyond its immediate home in Edgewater. A charter school now rents the space that the since-closed St. Gregory grade school once occupied. Staff designed new programs to address language challenges and struggles for teens entering the workforce.
“St. Gregory appears to be one of the first catholic high schools that really has a focus on serving students of English language learning and students of special needs which traditionally have not been served in the catholic school system,” said Head of School Deichstetter, who has worked for nearly three decades with public schools and the Archdiocese of Chicago, which oversees the region’s catholic schools.
Yet perhaps the most drastic shift in recent memory took place during the summer before the current school year, when all but five faculty and staff were fired. According to development director Linder, the new staff was brought in to implement a new technology-based curriculum, but the widespread changes left the school with few employees connected to the institution’s past.
Turnover impacted both classrooms and administrative offices. The Head of School position was created to replace the former President-Principal leadership model, and Deichstetter received the task of rebuilding the school with a new staff.
“It was exciting that I got to bring on a brand new team and do all the interviews for all the positions,” Deichstetter said. “The challenges were that there was a lot to put in place in a very short period of time.”
Students, many of whom had already spent years building relationships with faculty, have not enjoyed the transition to a new administration this year. Several of St. Gregory’s unique programs, such as the Protégé Program that provides internships for juniors and seniors with a high GPA, were temporarily discontinued because the teachers in charge of the programs were no longer on campus.
Carl Powe, an 18-year-old senior and self-proclaimed all-star basketball player from Wicker Park, worked at the Bark Bark Club last year through the Protégé Program. He had planned to participate again his senior year to pursue his interests in working with animals, but focused instead on basketball after learning he would not be able to work with the program.
“It was like freshman year again,” the stocky center for the St. Gregory Greyhounds said. “This is the time we are supposed to relax but it was difficult because the teachers didn’t really know anything about us.”
Cardboard boxes and aimless shelves occupy new staff offices that were once closets, and teachers are still in the process of renovating their classrooms. Deichstetter said she hopes to have everything in place in the fall for the start of the upcoming school year. Although the transition has inconvenienced many students, Phuong Nguyen, a senior who emigrated from Vietnam three years ago without knowing any English, said she recognizes that she has overcome greater obstacles in the past.
“It was pretty tough and I felt like I started school again, but I’m a quick learner. I can get used to things.”
Two residents of Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood started Pack the Car to collect food for local pantry Care for Real. Classmate Abigail Dennis and I visited Steve Pryor and Gregg Rojewski, Pack the Car co-founders, while they were collecting donations on a cold Saturday morning.
Like its Chicago Public Schools counterparts, Daniel S. Wenworth Elementary School cancelled classes in observance of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. However, its halls were still bustling with volunteers, paint and music Monday.
According to recruitment coordinator Julian Castro, more than 500 volunteers painted the interiors of three elementary schools in the Englewood community, including D.S. Wentworth, as part of an annual MLK day of service hosted by City Year. The nationwide program for recent college graduates works with local schools throughout the year.
About 200 volunteers took over the halls of D.S. Wentworth, 6950 S. Sangamon St., covering halls and classrooms with murals and colors selected by the school’s principal. The paintbrush-armed coalition recalled the diversity and acceptance Martin Luther King championed during the civil rights movement. The group comprised not only the Chicago White Sox Volunteer Corps and Bank of America, but also families and individuals from Englewood and beyond, City Year program director Jewan Garner said.
“The diversity and the different organizations that we have coming together might not come together on a typical basis, but they have common ground on this day of service to do something for Englewood,” said Garner, who grew up in the neighborhood prior to working for City Year for the past 10 years.
The stories of volunteers varied like the bright colors emerging on the elementary school’s walls. A Highland Park synagogue offered its congregants to the project and an artist from Champaign joined her daughter, a City Year corps member, on the second floor of the building.
Trayvond Mallett, a sophomore at nearby Paul Robeson High School, said the MLK holiday represented a chance to give back to his home community. An Englewood resident, Mallett attended D.S. Wentworth as a child and said his niece is currently enrolled.
“It feels good,” he said, concentrating on painting a detailed reproduction of a comic book cover to appear in the school library. “They can look up to what I did and look at the pictures and paintings and see how much effort I put into it.”
Two floors below, Betty Harrell tried to avoid dripping paint while applying the gold and brown colors of the D.S. Wentworth Warriors’ mascot to a stairwell. Harrell said she learned about the volunteer day through her employer, Bank of America, and had never participated in community service before.
“Obama was the one who motivated me to do the service thing,” she said. “You don’t have to be Martin Luther King but it’s nice to give back and once you start it becomes an obsession.”
The Chicago Public Schools website ranks D.S. Wentworth among the lowest-performing schools in the city in terms of test scores, scoring below average in math reading and science on 2010 subject tests. Of the 351 students from grades preschool to eighth grade, 95 percent come from low income families.
Volunteers said they hoped their work would contribute to a better learning atmosphere and allow students to take pride in their school. In addition to the mascot and school motto – Be Productive, Be Present, Be Powerful, Be Positive – City Year volunteers drew west African symbols in the hallways at the request of principal Dina Everage.
It was those symbols that inspired curiosity and wonder among the elementary school students returning from their three-day weekend Tuesday morning, D.S. Wentworth engineer Vince Zagotta said.
“The kids and teachers really liked it,” he said. “It made a big difference to the school and it meant a lot to me and the staff here that they came and did it.”
I’ve talked about my love for the public radio-turned HBO television program “This American Life.” Many factors contributed to my decision to attend Northwestern in the comparatively frigid Midwest, but I cannot ignore the allure of the controversial Weiners Circle hot dog stand. Ever since I saw the establishment profiled on TAL, I was determined to experience its raucous atmosphere and maybe, just maybe, try a Chicago-style hot dog. Surprisingly, none of my college buddies ever wanted to accompany me.
A photography assignment in a journalism class offered the perfect opportunity to meet the Weiners Circle. I called the stand in the afternoon asking permission to shoot. The employee told me to stop by at 7 p.m. I took the train the Lincoln Park neighborhood on the North Side only to find the Weiners Circle disappointingly empty. The night shift workers explained if I really wanted to get good pictures, I would have to wait until after midnight. The stand thrives on late-night crowds flocking from the nearby taverns.
I made friends with a University of Chicago professor, DePaul University students, hosts of revelers and the friendly employees during my three hours inside the hot dog stand. At the end of the night, I worked up the courage to order my first Chicago dog.
“I’m from California,” I whined at Kim Buckles, hoping to provoke the sassy shift manager of nine years. “Can I get an organic hot dog?”
“Sure, I can make it organic for you,” Buckles replied. “I’ll put my p****y juice on it, that’s organic.”
It tasted great.
Data journalist from Sacramento, not the r&b singer