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Column Thu Jan 13 2011

Children, Too: Chicago HOPES Making a Difference for Homeless Children

By Katherine Tellez, Julie Sammarco and Mollie Zubek

NOTE: Children's names have been changed to protect their identities.

Kindergartner Nina Phillips uses the whiteboard to do her work. Adam Conway says HOPES tries to provide as many learning materials as they can, though says, it's not the ideal situation. Photo by Julie Sammarco

On a typical weekday, Chicagoans will pass dozens of children with their backpacks heading to school.

But what many don't know is that there are 15,000 Chicago Public Schools students who are self-identified as homeless. Of that, about 1,700 live in shelters, according to a study done by the National Center on Family Homelessness. This number has tripled in the last 10 years.

Martin Elliott, a 10-year-old fifth grader at Gregory Math and Science Elementary, is one of the many homeless children in Chicago. But thanks to an after-school tutoring organization called Chicago HOPES, Banks has hope for the future.

"My favorite thing about school is I like to do math and I like to do reading," Elliott said. "You learn and you can get an education and you can go where you get to go."

HOPES stands for Heightening Opportunity and Potential for Educational Success. Chicago HOPES is an initiative that was started in 2006 and empowers students to succeed academically and overcome the challenges of being homeless. The organization collaborates with 10 homeless shelters to organize the after-school tutoring programs and offer them to the school-age homeless children.

A map of Chicago HOPES fall 2010 tutoring sites. View larger map.

"We are working with kids that don't really have a lot of other options," said Adam Conway, program coordinator for Chicago HOPES. "Right now these are kids that are either going to schools that don't have enough spots in after-school programs or they're not able to go to those programs so they come back here.

"And there's not necessarily a stable environment that a lot of us might have been used to; when you came home and sat down at the kitchen table to do your homework. That's not really an option to them. So just doing our best to provide stability, to provide additional learning resources, to provide mentors, just to have an environment where the kids are encouraged to get their work done and to excel."

According to Conway, Chicago HOPES' main purpose is to break the cycle of homelessness. HOPES strives to do this by improving the education of these children, raise their test scores, and help them understand their homework so they can graduate high school.

Elliott is one of many students in the HOPES program who already has big plans for himself.

"I wanna be a pro basketball player, a football player or a lawyer," Elliott said. "If those [first] two things don't work out I wanna be a lawyer."

Deon Potter is a 12-year-old fifth grader who also attends Gregory Math and Science Elementary. He has been a part of the HOPES program since December of 2009.

"I'm trying to get good grades on my progress report," Potter said when asked why he comes to HOPES. "I want to be on the A-B honor roll or principal's college." Principal's college is when a student receives straight As

The children at Chicago HOPES are very responsive to the program, Conway said. Independence House, one of the shelters HOPES works with, currently has 18 kids enrolled in the program. According to Conway, Chicago HOPES helped approximately 170 students last semester.

"They get really excited about the program and about working," he added, "and seeing their enthusiasm is heartwarming."

Alicia Webber is 8 years old and is in third grade. She has been coming to HOPES for a couple months.

"I like doing my homework with nice people that aren't going to be mean to me," she said. I like coming to an environment that is learning and has activities ... fun activities for us."

However, with so many homeless students working with volunteer tutors, the tutors say there are times when there is just not enough tutors to give each student one-on-one attention. And with so many kids, sometimes it can get a little crowded.

"It's frustrating," Webber said. "I'm trying to get my education but Monday through Thursday, every time I come in here they'll be a lot of kids yelling and everything. It don't feel too good."

Bri Smith, a tutor at the Independence House, said she too gets frustrated.

"It's different, some weeks we have four kids and this week was probably one of the busiest kids weeks we've had," Smith said. "It's frustrating because [tutors and students] both want one-on-one attention. They all do, and it's just so hard, and I feel bad."

Smith said this doesn't stop tutors because they see the potential that these kids have.

"As long as my schedule permits, I'd like to be doing this for awhile" Smith said.

Henry Perry is a retired teacher who enjoys working with the kids at Chicago HOPES. He says it gives him joy to see how smart the kids really are.

"I'm just glad to see that other people are volunteering to help the people that are less fortunate then they are," Perry said. "And it's making me feel good to give back."

According to Conway, in the future, Chicago HOPES intends to grow its program to include all the city's homeless shelters that serve families with children.

"I think it's really useful putting a face to things," Conway said. "Being able to put a human face to the cost of homelessness makes it that more imperative to solve that problem."


This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.

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Eric / January 14, 2011 9:53 AM

If you're interested in volunteering with Chicago HOPES, visit the website.

Eric / January 14, 2011 12:20 PM

HOPES is also holding a benefit concert 1/28 at the Beat Kitchen. More info.

Michael Volpe / January 14, 2011 2:53 PM

I volunteered in this program in 2008 and it's disheartening to see how difficult they have it. There's noise, no space, and most of the kids are so far behind.

I worked with one four year old who Was supposed to identify October 13 from a calendar that three months including October. He couldn't grasp any of it. He simply couldn't read.

These kids need so much help and Chicago HOPES is doing this all on their own. They do great work but there needs to be so much more to really make a difference.

Mike / January 16, 2011 9:26 PM

Great job on this story, Julie, Katherine and Mollie.

Adam / January 18, 2011 11:08 AM

HOPES can always use more volunteers to provide our students with the attention and the quality of tutoring that they deserve. That being said, please don't let Mr. Volpe's comment leave you believing that our children are inherently behind or hopelessly lost in the chaos of the shelter system. Many of our students excel beautifully despite the challenging conditions they face.

We ask that when you read this story, it instill in you a desire to be a part of the change, a part of these students' lives; pity is something these children do not desire, can not benefit from, and are above being reduced to.

Bernadette Pawlik / May 10, 2013 8:00 PM

Something to consider: That child who had difficulty identifying a month because someone helped him, now can do so. You have to measure progress in baby steps.

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