By Megan Dooley
The Chicago area branch of the worldwide charity organization United Way has a new approach to its charitable initiatives — dubbed Live United 2020 — which was officially announced Friday morning. And that focus on early childhood education was good news for two local social service agencies but spelled trouble for a third.
Parenthesis Family Center and the Oak Park and River Forest Day Nursery saw stable to increased funding for the coming year. But as the Journal previously reported, the new United Way focus left Hephzibah Children's Association out of the running for continuing funding.
The two demographics the organization aims to target are pre-Kindergarten and middle school aged kids. Those years are critical, and predictors of success throughout a child's education, said Wendy DeBoe, chief operating officer for United Way of Metropolitan Chicago, at the Sept. 9 Live United launch. The organization will invest $9 million for the educational initiative at the outset, and partner with 48 non-profit organizations, 26 of which will be focused on children grades six through eight, and 31 of which will focus on early childhood education. "We want to go narrow and deep into communities of greatest need," DeBoe said.
An indication of this change in direction came late last month in Oak Park, when Hephzibah told Wednesday Journal it had been quietly notified that its grant application for United Way funding had been denied this year. That meant a loss of some $100,000 in funds used to subsidize fees for Hephzibah's day care program, and the end of a 35-year partnership between the two organizations.
The reason for the grant denial, according to representatives at United Way, was that Hephzibah's program does not fit with the new Live United early education target, for children from birth to five years old. Rather, the Hephzibah day care program is for children ages five and up.
But two local organizations did make the cut. The Oak Park and River Forest Day Nursery, located on Randolph in Oak Park, and Parenthesis Family Center, located on S. Euclid, were both approved for grant funding this year. The Day Nursery was granted $54,000 and Parenthesis was granted $56,000.
At the launch, DeBoe specified that United Way aimed to support preschool programs and home visitations as part of the early childhood initiative. Both the Day Nursery and Parenthesis Family Center have programs that are in line with that goal.
"I do feel that the nursery fits in with the vision," said Catherine Hart, executive director for the Day Nursery. "That's what we're all about is quality child care, [and] we do have a preschool component within our system. So when the children walk in that door, they walk out ready to learn. They're prepared for Kindergarten."
The Day Nursery serves children from two to six years old, using a creative curriculum that aligns with the Illinois early learning standards for children. It identifies benchmarks that the children should meet, and then tracks their progress in reaching those benchmarks.
"We identify areas where our children are having issues of concern or weakness. We strengthen those areas," Hart said. That all matches up with United Way's guidelines for partner programs. "In terms of the vision, we are living the vision...It fits very well with what we've already been doing."
Parenthesis is a social service organization that targets a range of Oak Park families. Formed as a drop in center for parents with young children, Parenthesis is well known for its efforts on behalf of teen mothers and their babies. Over time, its program aims have broadened and now include service to families of all sorts. It is funded by local government, rather than the state of Illinois, and until now, was able to serve only Oak Park and River Forest as a result. But because of the recent restructuring of United Way from local to regional chapters and thanks to this grant funding, which more than doubled Parenthesis' grant from last year, it will be able to serve communities outside of the local government funded areas.
"It starts now, with this funding," Kathy Kern, executive director of Parenthesis, said of the expansion of service areas.
One of the factors that she said earned them the grant award is the fact that they provide home visits. "We are the only home visitation program in the area," Kern said.
Both Hart and Kern said that they are thrilled to be a part of the new United Way educational mission. But they said without the funding, both organizations would have been in serious jeopardy.
"That's more than an understatement," Hart said. "This is a need. This is an essential need for my agency."
Hephzibah, too, considered the funding a critical need for its program when it found out its grant application had been denied. And though the Community Chest of Oak Park-River Forest stepped in to help ease the blow with a one-time $75,000 grant, Hephzibah Executive Director Mary Anne Brown said it should have been United Way.