Gathering Everyone Around the Table

Thanksgiving is a special time at Heartland Alliance. It provides staff members and participants the opportunity to connect with one another, and to reflect on our progress and successes. From refugees and immigrants celebrating the holiday for the first time, to survivors of trafficking and violence who have found peace in the past year, Heartland Alliance programs of all backgrounds had a chance to celebrate.

Freedom From Trafficking: Day of Thanks Celebration

Gathering participants, staff, interns, and volunteers to celebrate at Catalyst Ranch, our Freedom from Trafficking (FFT) program spent the holiday focusing on community and the things that bind us together. Attendees shared the things they’re grateful for on the “Tree of Thanks”—their lives, their families, the people who make them smile, their health, and “all the incredible people who make every day a step forward.”

Each year, the FFT team recognizes a local partner with the “Bridge to Freedom Award” during the celebration. This year, HHCS Executive Director David Sinski and FFT Associate Director Darci Flynn presented Kourtney and Lauren Seamen of Reach 77—a faith-based network of volunteers throughout Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods—in recognition of their many years of contributions to the FFT and Heartland community. Among other supports, Kourtney and Lauren opened up a food pantry out of their storage room, donated money to help furnish survivors’ homes, adopted several families over the holidays to ensure they had gifts to open with their children, and provided housing for survivors facing homelessness.

Thanks to the Seamens and Reach 77 – we are truly grateful for you!

READI Chicago Celebration

READI Chicago outreach partner, UCAN, hosted a Thanksgiving celebration for the READI Chicago North Lawndale location. READI Chicago staff from UCAN, Lawndale Christian Legal Center, and the North Lawndale Employment Network joined participants for food, music, and thanks. During the celebration, participants received awards for timeliness and participation in cognitive behavioral therapy, as well as recognition for advancing to Stage 2 in their transitional jobs.

Marjorie Kovler Center Cooking Group

This Thanksgiving, staff and participants from many programs gathered to cook, eat, and give thanks for the communities, opportunities, and safety they have found through Heartland Alliance. The Marjorie Kovler Center celebrated Thanksgiving with an international cooking group. Survivors of torture and their families came together to share recipes and memories from back home. The result? A globally inspired Thanksgiving meal like no other!

Refugee and Immigrant Community Services – RICSGIVING

Our refugee resettlement team loves to celebrate their annual tradition, where new Americans from around the city gather to eat, connect, and enjoy the holiday season – with some enjoying Thanksgiving for the very first time! Students created “Gratitude Jars” where they decorated mason jars and filled them with little notes about things in their lives that they’re grateful for, as well as painted pictures to hang near the “Gratitude Turkey.”

Students also selected feathers on our Gratitude Turkey and wrote one thing they’re thankful for.

The Refugee and Immigrant Community Services (RICS) team is particularly thankful for their longtime partner and supporter, East Bank Club. The River North fitness club has been a longtime employer of numerous new Americans, providing them the opportunity necessary to rebuild their lives in Chicago. Every Thanksgiving, the team at EBC give their employees the option to donate their Thanksgiving Day turkeys to our resettlement programs. Thank you!

Insights into Impact: Megan and Darci

Megan Mahoney, FFT Director (center) and Darci Flynn FFT Associate Director (second from right)

Heartland Alliance’s Freedom From Trafficking (FFT) team has been helping survivors of human trafficking since 2011 – and Megan Mahoney (Director of FFT) and Darci Flynn (Associate Director of FFT) have been around since the beginning. During that time, they have developed region-wide coalitions of human service agencies that have gone on to serve over 800 survivors of trafficking – including 107 survivors within the Freedom From Trafficking program itself.

We recently had a chance to sit down with the duo to talk about why they are so passionate about this work.


What got you into this work? (In your specific cases, what led you to creating the FFT program?)

Megan: I took an Intro to Social Work class my senior year of college and something got me hooked. Maybe the combination of the strengths-based approach and non-judgmental attitude, or the partnership aspect of helping people activate their power and resiliency to break out of very sticky and intersecting cycles of poverty, violence, and trauma. So after a few years in the working world I went back to school for my MSW.

When I returned to Chicago after grad school I knew I wanted to work at Heartland. What better place for a social worker! I think I interviewed for my job before it was even posted. When I was hired, we had 10 days to implement a 14-state program and I started on day 3. FFT has changed A LOT since but one constant is that it’s never been boring.

Darci: I came into the anti-trafficking field straight from graduate school  after obtaining my MSW. I entered graduate school thinking I wanted to work with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, having worked with these populations while in undergraduate school. But during my second year field placement in graduate school, I had the pleasure of working at the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE), which opened my eyes to sex trafficking and exploitation.

Was there a moment where you KNEW you were in a job that was right for you? Could you talk about that?

Megan: Most days we’re just plugging away, not getting to see the impact of what we’re doing. But then there are moments like when our recommendations were published in the Federal Strategic Action Plan on Services to Victims of Human Trafficking in the United States, or when the Chicago Housing Authority approved a pilot for trafficking survivors to access Housing Choice Vouchers. Now when survivors move out of shelter and into their own apartments, or when we see a federal funding opportunity infused with trauma-informed care language we can see our fingerprints on it.

Darci: This will always be stuck in my memory: I was just about a year onto the job when I met a male survivor of sex trafficking. He was living on a mattress in the laundry room of a hotel in the suburbs paying the hotel $800 per month to stay there (in addition to helping out around the hotel). He had never had a safe place to call home. In his home country, he lived in an abusive household where he was ostracized due to his sexuality. He fled his home country as a teenager hoping for safety and a better life in the US. It is here where he became trafficked for 20 years. Since then, he had lived in and out of homeless for 20 years. When I met him, he was 40 years old. After about two to three weeks of working with him, I was able to find him a studio apartment that would allow him to rent the unit despite his undocumented status. Our program was able to help with the rent.

The day I moved him in, we stood in his empty apartment and I handed him his very own keys. He said, “I always go to the Salvation Army Thrift Store to buy things I need. One day, I bought a cooking pot and the cashier had grown to know me by then. The cashier looked at me and said ‘Why are you buying a cooking pot, you don’t have a home or kitchen to cook in?’ to which I responded, ‘because someday this cooking pot will have a home.” On that day, 20 years post leaving his trafficking situation, and forty years into his life, this participant had a safe home to lay his head and to cook with his cooking pot.

What is your favorite part of your job?

Megan: I love collaboration and FFT has always embraced a partnership-based approach. Our successes have been because we’ve engaged with smart people willing to consider not just what is, but what could be. My role has expanded in the past few years so now I get to work with other Heartland Alliance programs like our Opciones Saludables (Healthy Options) and Violence Recovery Services teams. We’re thinking across the board about how to reach more people and maximize our impact—in the past year alone we’ve built two new partnerships with HHCS’s Housing & Health and Pathways to Success Initiatives.  

Darci: A huge part of how we work with participants is helping them achieve justice. Justice looks different from one participant to another and very rarely does justice look like the traditional criminal justice response of prosecution and incarceration. So often justice looks like obtaining a safe place to live, re-uniting with family members, obtaining a job making a livable wage, obtaining an education, learning English, and receiving legal status. Participants dictate these goals. I love helping participants achieve these goals and I also love fixing broken systems and resources that stand in the way of justice for these survivors and their families.

How can others help your work?

You tell us. What are your skills, resources, assets, and interests? We’ll put you to work!

Freedom to Grow Again

A Human Trafficking Survivor’s Story

Jonathan Deleon and his family in downtown Chicago

“Before I left for the U.S., my wife and I were in love like Romeo and Juliet. I was so scared that we wouldn’t have that anymore. And my son is at the age where he is becoming a man, so I wasn’t sure if he would want me to hug or kiss him.”

Ten years is a long time for anything. It’s an especially long time to be away from your own family. For Jonathan Deleon, it was an eternity.

January is National Human Trafficking Awareness month. We must recognize that human trafficking is more than a practice upheld by exploitative businesses and individuals, and is the result of flawed institutional structures that exacerbate inequity and poverty. A majority of trafficking survivors enter the country legally on temporary work visas. These individuals are ambitious, hardworking people striving to achieve something greater. Most individuals who end up becoming trafficked were simply looking to work for a better life. For people like Jonathan Deleon, a hospitality worker from the Philippines, it’s a means to care for his family.

“I wanted to build a life in the United States. I wanted to do that with my family. I had to get them here, but I had to find my way first.”

In 2009, Jonathan found himself in Louisiana working at a hotel, where the threat of losing his VISA forced him to work long hours for very little pay. He was subjected to cleaning rooms for a minimum of 12 hours a day without permitted breaks, and under temperatures too hot to be considered safe.

The company he worked for would collect exorbitant fees directly from his already small paycheck and when he tried to cash them, they would often bounce or be delayed. The same agency also was in control of his housing situation, charging unmanageable rents in relation to his income and responding to late payments punitively. Jonathan was often locked out of his room or living in the dark after having his electricity cut off. He found himself in a continual loop that only seemed to put him in more debt to his employers.

Jonathon then tried organizing with a group of his fellow workers, pooling together all of their money to purchase a lawyer – only to have that lawyer disappear with their money. Exploited once more, Jonathan’s hopes to reunite with his family grew dim. This situation lasted for nine years.

“For the longest time, I didn’t know if there would be anyone willing to hear our story. I was so anxious, so sad. I’ve been away from my family for so long. I felt so alone.”

Finally, with the help of a legal aid agency, he was able to escape his traffickers and was ultimately introduced to Heartland Alliance’s Freedom From Trafficking program. The program was developed to respond to these types of issues, and has developed a region-wide network that responds to the loopholes allowing trafficking to thrive. Through a human rights based approach focused on trauma-informed care, the team has developed a strong infrastructure and community across private, public, and nonprofit sectors that work together to end trafficking.

“When I met Claire at Freedom From Trafficking, she was so warm. We met at a coffee shop and the first thing she said to me was ‘Don’t worry, I’m here to help.’”

Claire and Jonathan developed a plan to get him back on his feet – with the ultimate goal of reuniting him with his family. Claire knew that Jonathan’s experience in the hotel industry would serve him well in one of the biggest tourist destinations in the country. There are countless hotels in Chicago – hotels with ethical hiring and employment practices – that often offer a wage of about $15 an hour and could put his goal of reunification on the fast track.

Claire helped Jonathan get into Heartland Alliance’s hospitality workforce program – a six week training program that would provide him with certification and a high-likelihood of employment. Upon completion, Jonathan quickly found work with a luxury hotel. Shortly after last summer, he found out that his family’s visas were accepted and they could be coming here in just a matter of weeks. What once was a dream was quickly becoming a reality.

“It was all coming together so quickly. All of a sudden, I have a real salary, I have benefits, I have health insurance. My family was coming to me. I was actually quite nervous.”

Claire joined Jonathan at the airport to welcome his wife and son. His embrace with his wife was the culmination of ten years of waiting, hoping, and dreaming of their unification. This was the reason for his leaving the Philippines ten years ago – this embrace in the heart of O’Hare Airport. This was the goal all along.

His son was a bit hesitant. Jonathan remembers seeing his son’s standoffish nature and mirroring his movements. He slowly walked up to him with a squint and a nod, and saying in a goofy tone, “So, who are you?” It was enough to break the ice, and the two laughed and hugged.

The last few weeks have been an adventure for the family. Jonathan has been helping his wife and son get used to public transportation, the cold weather, and the hustle and bustle of urban life. They’ve gone to the zoo, and have spent hours exploring downtown. His son is a huge sports fan and a member of the varsity basketball team back in the Philippines. Jonathan, a basketball fan as well, bought his son gym shoes that they’ve been testing on basketball courts across town.

Jonathan’s hard work and dedication to his family have finally brought them these moments. This is only the beginning for them, and you can feel the excitement for what lies ahead.

“Heartland Alliance has given me the room to grow again, to shine. My family and I couldn’t be more grateful.”

The Holidays Are In Full Effect At Heartland Alliance

The following appeared in Heartland Alliance’s December eNews. To subscribe to our eNews, click here.

The Holidays Are A Hit At Heartland Alliance

Throughout the month, participants, supporters, and employees have been celebrating the season together as we work to achieve Equity and Opportunity for All. Heartland Alliance arranged gatherings across the city to engage in festivities to make this time of year a little more enjoyable for those most vulnerable. The Adopt-A-Family and Stocking Stuffing programs were attended by countless corporate and individual volunteers, resulting in hundreds of gifts for our participants. Take a peek “behind-the-scenes.”

Adopt-A-Family gifts and Stocking Stuffers ready to make their way across Chicago.

Payline Data’s efforts were in support of the Deleon family who participates in our Freedom From Trafficking program. They purchased gifts for the newly reunited family including items such as gym shoes, coats, school supplies, and much-needed kitchenware.

For a decade, Jonathan Deleon was subject to working for unethical hospitality employers. Underpaid, scammed into unfair housing practices, and forced to work with the threat of losing his visa, Jonathan’s life with his family was put on hold indefinitely. “For 10 years, I worked through the holidays. To survive, I had to put that away in my mind. This year, I’m going to make it really special.” Read the full story here.

The Deleon family together again for the holidays.

Payline employees gather to share in the holiday spirit in support of the Deleon family and others.


Heartland Alliance also hosted a cheerful holiday party in the Bridgeport neighborhood in mid-December. Residents of Chicago’s public housing program gathered together with FamilyWorks staff to celebrate the holidays, enjoy local food, play bingo, and partake in a raffle. Kids enjoyed coloring activities, and staff set up a Christmas tree for family photos. Staff and residents expressed gratitude during the event for an opportunity to spend quality time together and support one another during the holidays.


Addressing Violence and Trauma Through Research and Direct Service

Earlier this year, Heartland Alliance released a research report that documented needs and gaps for survivors of domestic violence and highlighted a lack of services in communities of color and low-income communities, despite increasing need. The Domestic Violence Needs Assessment of Chicago noted that effectively addressing domestic violence in Chicago must include a commitment to ensuring equitable access to services for survivors, adequately funding programs, and continuing to support the city’s existing response system.

A collage created by a participant who was impacted by domestic violence.

Through our Violence Recovery Services program, Heartland Alliance is able to provide a continuum of services to children, adults, seniors and families who have been impacted by domestic violence, sexual assault or abuse, or community violence and trauma. Through various approaches, staff works to help those impacted heal. Click here to read more about this achieved through artistic expression.


A Record-breaking Holiday Brunch

What an incredibly powerful Holiday Brunch earlier this month. Thanks to our many generous supporters, we raised more than $350,000 – nearly a 50% increase over last year – making it the most successful Holiday Brunch in recent history! If you were unable to attend, check out the short video that was screened and event photos on the website. Thank you for making this year’s Brunch one to remember!