Perseverance is an indispensable quality of any successful learner — and it paid off on Wednesday, March 7 for a group of education advocates when they were awarded a $50,000 grant at the third annual Big Idea Finalist Pitch Party.

An Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation giving group, Entrepreneur Leaders in Philanthropy (ELP), tapped Excellence with Equity after deliberating for nearly an hour about which of the five pitch finalists to select.

Last year, leaders of the group—including presenters Sheree Johnson, Frances Kraft and Jackie Moore—brought forth “100% College and Career Ready” as their big idea.

At that time, their stated goal was to ensure all OPRF High School students are college ready by 2020 through mentoring and coaching Their refined vision this time around: spurring on student achievement by engaging with parents and guardians and helping them advocate successfully for their children as they navigate their educational experience. 

After the program, Johnson said she was “beyond thrilled.”

“The work that we do is connecting with families who are not already connected to the community,” said Johnson. “It takes time to build these relationships and to build trust. This grant will give us that opportunity.”

The decision for ELP judges came backstage at Wire, 6815 Roosevelt Road in Berwyn. It was a difficult choice because the five finalists each provided compelling ideas. In addition to Excellence with Equity, they were: 

Access to Swimming, a program aiming to teach children how to swim and gain water safety skills before third grade. Studies have shown that if they have not learned by then, they will most likely never learn to swim. The idea flowed from employees of the Park District of Oak Park. 

Big Box of Play, a Wonder Works Children Museum-generated idea. At its heart it is a mission to see that every child can have access to multiple spaces where play, creativity and imagination are encouraged and supported through traveling pop-up exhibits.

From Lawns to Gardens II. A repeat finalist, this group is seeking to convert local lawns into toxin-free gardens and landscapes. 

Suicide Safer Community, which is being championed by John Meister, executive director of Thrive Counseling Center. The idea is to create a community that reduces suicide attempts and prevents incidents of suicide by training citizens to be adept in skills such as talking about the topic and detecting warning signs in others.

After the Entrepreneur Leaders in Philanthropy decided to award the $50,000 grant to Excellence with Equity, 10 ELP members also pledged to provide $1,000 apiece in support of From Lawns to Gardens II.

Cathy Yen, executive director of the OPRF Chamber of Commerce and an ELP member, said “When you’re debating between your kids and your planet, it’s a tough call.”

“We greatly appreciate this seed that’s been planted by the Community Foundation and the ELP to get this mission sprouted,” said David Murphy, the From Lawns to Gardens II presenter. “We’re honored.” 

Already with support from the Oak Park Public Library and local school districts, the Equity with Excellence group has been working intensively to tutor and mentor 35 students and their families. Among other activities, the funding from the ELP will enable the group to conduct research, provide training and develop a “sustainable network” of families helping other families.

“Our Big Idea is transformative because it fills a longstanding void,” Johnson told judges in her presentation. “Our schools need families to have the skills to help them navigate the school system.”

A key component of the plan is not only to guide parents and guardians on how to advocate effectively for their children, but help other families do the same who would then repeat the cycle to reach and teach other families. 

Among those in the standing-room only audience were seven Oak Park and River Forest High School students who are part of the school’s new Business Incubator program. The entrepreneurially focused curriculum has about 75 students learning various facets of developing a business while also working to develop commercially viable products and services. 

OPRF business teacher Matt Prebble accompanied the students at the pitch party.

“They have been developing ideas with a focus on how to turn a profit, and they’re quite inspired now to shift their focus,” said Prebble. “Their vision now includes giving back and making more of an impact in their local community.” 

During the program, the approximately 250 people in attendance saw brief video clips of the first two Big Idea grant recipients: The Surplus Project and The Rescue Foundation.

The grant to The Surplus Project expanded a then-burgeoning movement of preserving surplus cafeteria food from Rush Oak Park Hospital to eight partner agencies. In 2017, the effort diverted 14,000 pounds of food and rescued 12,000 meals to feed those in need locally. 

The Rescue Foundation has enabled the employment of 22 individuals who were previously incarcerated. In addition, the organization has trained 75 others to break the cycle of recidivism and who are now job-ready, said Rescue Foundation director Deno Andrews. Andrews is also an Oak Park village trustee.

Also during the program, the Community Foundation continued its tradition of setting aside $2,000 to be shared proportionally among the five finalists, based on audience preferences. The guests placed tokens in buckets representing each finalist during the judges’ deliberations. The top recipient was Suicide Safer Community. 

Excellence with Equity is online at From Lawns to Gardens II is online at

Entrepreneur Leaders in Philanthropy brings together 40 business leaders, each contributing $2,500 toward a fund of $100,000, being used in part to fund a Big Idea that could transform Oak Park and River Forest communities for generations to come. For more information about the Big Idea, please visit

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