If you believe in fairy godmothers, silver linings, glasses half-full and everyday miracles, you're going to like this story. If you're a skeptic who thinks life is what you alone make it, you're going to like it too.
It's the story of a home created by a team: an Oak Park faith community at odds with itself, a pastor with a vision, a community-based social service agency, some very inspired and pragmatic individuals, and a young parent willing to work toward a better life.
Not to give away the ending, but the folks involved aim to demonstrate a moral: if we work together and tap local resources we can ensure economic diversity in our village, one family at a time.
A knock on the door
Michelle Boardman is an energetic parent and a marketing professional. She embodies that old axiom, "If you want something done, find a busy person."
Early in the spring, Boardman joined with other parishioners at Ascension Catholic Church in south Oak Park for a series of "common ground" discussions arranged by Pastor Larry McNally. The discussions were facilitated by a trained mediator, with the goal of addressing dissent that remained in the parish after its decision not to become a PADS overnight shelter site.
This decision had left many people feeling unsettled. McNally didn't want to let divisions about the best way to serve the homeless fester among his parishioners, he says.
McNally was inspired by the late Cardinal Bernardin, who believed that disagreements could be bridged by looking for common ground between groups. "We can work together to resolve conflicts," McNally says. "We can come to some creative common ground where people have a choice."
Boardman was deeply moved by the common ground process. "I felt a calling," she says. "It is about people choosing their own level of involvement. We can open everybody's eyes to the opportunity to serve, versus trying to change people's point of view."
One of the speakers parishioners heard during the common ground meetings was Dalia Rocotello, Catholic Charities regional services representative for the west suburbs. She spoke about the New Hope apartment program, where families are housed and gradually supported toward self-sufficiency.
"I wasn't aware of all the programs happening in our own backyard. This program sounded like such a great opportunity to help families get back on their feet," says Boardman.
When McNally asked for volunteers to act on the recommendations that came out of the common ground discussion, Boardman stepped forward to co-chair the New Hope apartment project, along with parishioner Mary Planek. The two women hit the ground running, and things took off for the new ministry.
"I'm very happy. Michelle and Mary really ran with it. Catholic Charities was great too," says McNally.
"We were truly amazing," notes Planek, a mother of five who, like Boardman, found the time and volunteers to locate, furnish and fund the New Hope apartment in the approximately two months between May, when the group had its kickoff meeting, and July 1 when the family moved in.
Boardman spent an afternoon with Rocotello at her Catholic Charities office, learning about the New Hope apartment program. The committee grew to about a dozen members who did everything from organize fundraisers to coordinate donations, along with discussing the project with other parish groups.
The New Hope apartment committee had a clear goalâ€"to raise a minimum of $12,000 per year for two years, which is the money used to pay the tenant's rent in Oak Park ($875 per month for the two-bedroom apartment), utilities and other housing costs.
A Housewarming Weekend was organized in May that featured a Saturday night benefit party, followed by informational talks and donation stations at each Mass the next day.
Along with cash donations, household goods and furniture were collected. To date, the group has raised $10,000 and is continuing its fundraising work. Once the apartment was located through the Oak Park Residence Corporation (OPRC), a not-for-profit agency that owns and manages apartment buildings in the village, the committee started planning how to get in and outfit it in a very limited window of time.
Though leased through June 30, the apartment was vacated sooner, so OPRC was able to prepare it. "OPRC did an outstanding job of cleaning and painting and getting it ready for a new family to move in," says Planek.
On Thursday evening, June 30, a small army of vans converged on Planek's home. Between 6:30 and 8:30 p.m., a group of volunteers moved furniture from various locationsâ€"like a donated bedroom set awaiting pick up in Riversideâ€"into the second-floor walk-up apartment.
"We had stuff coming from all over the place," Planek recalls.
Under the guidance of Ascension parishioner Paula Schumacker, an interior designer, household items including pictures, cleaning supplies, a week's worth of groceries, diapers, pots and pans were arranged to make the empty apartment into a home.
"It all came together within 24 hours," says Planek, who likens the experience to the television home-makeover show, While You Were Out.
At 4:28 p.m. on July 1, Planek got back in her van for the last time. The tenant arrived at 4:30 p.m., accompanied by Catholic Charities staff, to take possession of the apartment. The family, a young mother with a toddler, remains anonymous to the parish.
"It was such a humbling experience. Our team has learned a lot about what challenges these families face," says Boardman.
As the young mother eventually takes over payments on the apartment, Ascension plans to sponsor another family, to gradually expand Oak Park's supply of affordable housing and Ascension's homeless ministry, one home at a time.
"If every parish could do one apartment we'd really lighten the load," says Boardman. "You're building a community."
To make a cash or material donation to Ascension's New Hope Ministry, contact the parish office at 848-2703. Donations that can't be used by the parish are given to Catholic Charities.
The apartment selected for the New Hope project is a "market rent," apartment, subsidized only in that the Ascension donations currently pay the rent. No Section 8 voucher or other public housing funds are involved.
"We are committed to having mostly market rate tenants, but we do rent a certain number of subsidized [apartments]," says Claudia Zinanni of the Oak Park Residence Corporation. "Basically, about 20 percent of our tenancy is low income.
"We would like our buildings to be reflective of the village," Zinanni adds.
Those involved point to the New Hope model as assisting OPRC toward its goal by serving as a way for low-income families to gain access to mainstream housing in Oak Park.
At present, Ascension is the only parish in the west suburban area that is directly sponsoring an apartment in partnership with Catholic Charities. However, New Hope apartments are found throughout Catholic Charities' Cook County service area.
"I was just amazed," says Maggie Oscar, director of West Suburban New Hope Apartments, when asked about Catholic Charities' partnership with Ascension's New Hope team. She attended some of the informational and planning meetings organized by Boardman, her committee and Catholic Charities' staffers.
"It was definitely a combined effort," Oscar says of the myriad steps that brought Ascension's idea to reality. "Together we can make a greater impact."
Catholic Charities' west suburban office, where Oscar works, is located in Cicero. The site has a food pantry and clothes closet available to New Hope families as well as the entire community.
"We don't just house the families, we provide them with services," Oscar explains. Staff carefully assess New Hope candidates, as they must be ready to engage in a step-by-step process toward self-sufficiency.
While Ascension provides the concrete items like rent money, furniture, money for utilities and other expenses, Catholic Charities provides case managementâ€"regular contacts between trained social service staff and the family.
"Case management is one of the most important pieces of the puzzle," says Oscar. The relationship a case manager builds with a New Hope family provides consistent informational and emotional support for the challenges of finding and keeping a job, childcare and health care, she notes.
New Hope families have a timeline of up to 24 months to become self-sufficient, and the case manager walks with them to achieve key milestones on their journey. By the two-year mark the family must take over payment of their housing costs.
"The goal is for them to remain in the apartment. We want them to be stable with their family," Oscar says. "One thing I do at the 18-month point is to have them start saving for rent out of their paycheck."
Once the family starts to pay their own rent, they enter the "aftercare" phase of their time in the New Hope program. The case manager continues to work with the family, but less intensely, for about six more months.
If you're interested in learning more about Catholic Charities and the New Hope apartment program, call Rocotello at 329-4022.