The HEPH Foundation wants you, and 10 percent of the community, to be involved in mobilizing STEM programs throughout Oak Park and surrounding neighborhoods as it launches “The Ten Percent Drive,” a fundraising effort with the goal of raising $3 million.
Founded by Sheila and Steve Conner as a response to their son expressing frustration with math and science, the HEPH Foundation engages students in STEM learning by creating programs to draw attention and keep students learning. From its inception, the foundation has provided programs to local schools, including Oak Park and River Forest High School, and throughout the Chicagoland area through in-school, afterschool, and even pop-up events.
A partner with the Oak Park community since the start, the foundation was the recipient of a $1.2 million grant from the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation in 2021, which is dedicated to mobilizing resources to provide a racially just society and equitable outcomes for Oak Park residents.
“The Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation is pleased to steward support for the important work HEPH Foundation is doing to develop accessible and inclusive STEM programs in area schools,” said Tony Martinez, the foundation’s president and CEO. “Steve and Sheila are passionate educators, inspiring and empowering them with tools to succeed in science and technology-based careers. The HEPH Foundation’s approach has demonstrated the potential to create greater opportunities for underserved populations and build a brighter educational future for all.”
The grant has allowed the Oak Park couple to lay down a strong foundation to provide services on a larger scale, something they were not able to during the COVID pandemic, despite their best efforts.
“We didn’t have the capacity to meet the demand, we had folks here in our town, but we also had all over Chicagoland, we had folks coming from CPS, and we just could not do it,” Steve Conner said.
Prior to the grant, the foundation was able to take on approximately 120 students but since its allocation, Steve Conner said they can now provide programs to multiple schools at once, allowing for choice in programming, letting students “follow their heart.”
“The grant went towards building the capacity, so now we are ready, but being ready is one thing, now it’s important to keep it going to actually provide the value going forward,” said Steve Conner. “The grant has allowed us to take all that we have learned in the five years that we have been building and working with the community and making it accessible to more people.”
The grant was used to develop new programs, find instructors, and flesh out materials but moving into the next step and being able to meet a student’s needs while participating in STEM programs, the foundation needs additional funding.
The HEPH Foundation is currently in the process of raising an additional $3 million in the next two years. The fundraising efforts, dubbed “The Ten Percent Drive,” is a way to get at least 10 percent of people involved in STEM programs, helping drive interest into the growing field.
“In order to create a mindset shift in any community, you need 10 percent,” said Steve Conner. “If you get 10 percent of them, you can shift anything. We want to get kids, the learners, super excited about STEM, we want them to become critical, super empowered critical thinkers. If we grab a hold of 10 percent of them and get them involved in our program… we can help them invent the future.”
The urgency behind their drive is the fast-moving world of technology and the advances made every day, which Steve Conner said moves at an “exponential rate.” With this mindset, Steve Conner hopes to be able to encourage students to dive in and harvest their skills to keep up with changing times.
In order to be able to properly provide programs to schools, it is crucial for the foundation to be able to have adequate funding as oftentimes they provide requested programs and services and are not paid until the end of the programs.
“You have to be a little bit of a float for schools because their budget and the way they work doesn’t necessarily coincide with the business cycle,” Steve Conner said. “I don’t think people are aware of that.”
“We have to be deeply resourced to fill the need,” Sheila Conner added.
Helping students develop a passion for STEM goes beyond providing a program for a few weeks, as the pair wants to ensure they give students the best experience possible and provide them with all the tools they need to succeed. The idea of providing for the whole child is one that the Conner’s believe makes a difference in the way students show up to learn.
Steve Conner recalls one school outside of Oak Park, which wanted to bring a STEM program to their students but did not have a math teacher to teach it. The HEPH Foundation found someone to assist but the students still lacked transportation and showed up to a competition in their own clothes while other teams donned uniforms.
“How can they really honestly participate?” asked Steve Conner. “Learning STEM is not just about learning these things, it’s about taking care of the whole child, the social and emotional component.”
As they move through the next two years and “The Ten Percent Drive,” they hope to be able to find additional community partners who align with the goal of equity and inclusion throughout all bodies of students in STEM. Along with always accepting donations through their website, https://www.hephfoundation.org, the foundation will be hosting an online fundraising event near Halloween time and are looking for volunteers to help make it happen. As part of “The Ten Percent Drive,” the Conners encourage anyone who wants to be involved in furthering students’ growth in STEM to reach out and be part of the movement towards the future.