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!

Ali Brown of Supportive Services for Veteran Families

Ali Brown started as a housing resource specialist for the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) team, dedicated to the idea of serving vulnerable populations. Her passion for the work has allowed her to thrive at SSVF where she is now a program manager. Helping veterans find housing and opportunity in Chicago is more than just a job for Ali, it’s a personal mission.

  1. What got you into this work?

I got an undergraduate degree in clinical psychology. I’ve always been passionate about homeless services – and actually got my start at Heartland Alliance Health right out of grad school. I was working with individuals who were chronically homeless, and just loved the feeling of the huge impact I was making on the lives of my participants.

That particular program was ending, and I knew I wanted to continue to serve individuals experiencing homelessness – and continue working for Heartland Alliance. Fortunately for me, I found SSVF.

  1. Why is this work important to the community? To the people we serve?

With veterans services specifically, there’s been a huge national push to end veteran homelessness. Having a chance to be a part of that in one of the largest cities in the country has been profound. Since 2014, we’ve seen the amount of veterans living on the streets of Chicago go from over 3,000 to under 700. That’s spectacular. These are individuals who have sacrificed for us, so of course we should make sure they can live under a roof.

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

I’ve felt that right off the bat at Heartland Alliance. When you start to see the changes in the lives of the people we serve, it moves you. Even small successes can transform into huge life changing events. Heartland Alliance’s mission aligns with who I want to be and what I want to do.

  1. What is your favorite part of your job?

It really is all about the successes of our participants. We’ve had some participants come in a bit jaded – people who had bad experiences with other service agencies, and we’ve shifted their perspective. Seeing the hope come back into their lives, it’s so fulfilling.

  1. How can others help your work?

It really is about educating yourself to be a more helpful person. We have a coordinated entry system in Chicago that actually helps people get connected to the right program now, so knowing what is near your home or near your place of work can be a dramatic first step to helping someone exit homelessness.

Veterans Helping Veterans: Christian and our SSVF Team

Christian remembers the exact moment he decided to join the military. On September 11, 2001 he was just 8 years old but his memories of the events that unfolded remain vivid. He remembers going to school, watching the news with his peers and teachers – but most importantly, he remembers the inherent pull towards protecting his country, towards service.

“It was always my plan to be in the military for as long as I can remember, but that was the day I knew I was going to sign up.”

Nine years later, Christian joined the Army at the age of 17. During the testing process, he was given a rather large selection but ultimately decided to be a medic. While he was ready to join infantry, his family’s protective nature and concern led him to find a compromise that would still keep him close to the front lines. With tours in Afghanistan and Africa, Christian spent four years in active duty and a quarter of his life in service.

When it was time to transition to the next chapter of his life – coming home – he felt both excited and scared. He was ready to take advantage of the GI Bill and find the skills necessary to help people in civilian life, but the instant transition of responsibilities felt daunting.

As he settled into life back home, Christian stayed with family but that was short-lived – and after tensions rose to uncomfortable levels, Christian decided to find a path all his own.

“I knew I needed to find my own way but when I moved out on my own, I didn’t find a place immediately – nor did I have the financial means. I had no idea how to find a place of my own, how to set up utilities. All of that stuff is taken care of when you’re in the military. Emotionally, mentally, it was exhausting trying to start from scratch.”

So he crashed on couches, hopping from house to house and trying to make sure he didn’t overstay his welcome. In just a few short months though, Christian found himself living out of his car. He remembers just how little space he had with most of the car used as storage for his belongings, and he remembers how exhausting the days were. “I didn’t want to take advantage of my friends. It got really tough. I didn’t have the luxury of enjoying the normal things that people take for granted. I missed the comfort of home.”

But Christian was determined and he kept moving forward. He enrolled in one of Chicago’s City Colleges and continued to apply for local work. During one fateful visit at the Chicago Veterans Affairs office, Christian finally began to find a leg up. A checkup and routine immunizations for school gave him the opportunity to speak with a local case manager, who mentioned Heartland Alliance’s Supportive Services for Veterans and their Families (SSVF) program. He made the call and met with our team just a few days later.

“The intake process for SSVF was great. I went in a little nervous. I wasn’t expecting someone to be so nice to me, given my situation. I feel like they got a sense of me as a person, as a human being.”

SSVF case managers were able to get Christian off the streets, helping him find an apartment, providing nine-months of rental assistance, and supporting him every step of the way as he worked to build a brighter future. He used his military-medic skills to become an EMT with a local ambulance company and got a part-time job as a lifeguard. The income from his new jobs, combined with the rental assistance, meant he was able to save and make plans for the future. He paid off credit cards and began building a nest egg while going back to school.

“I was given a chance for a reset, I could really build my life back together.”

Christian is truly a model participant. His dedication and mission-driven attitude underscores the SSVF program’s very purpose. We believe that everyone should have access to housing, healthcare, jobs, and justice. We believe that because we know how people respond to that opportunity. Ultimately, it was Christian’s incredible response that led SSVF case managers to invite him to apply for a new peer-support specialist position within the program – which he ultimately secured!

“It’s an honor,” he says. “This is something I’ve hoped to be in my life. I want to be a humanitarian. As a medic, it’s about working right then and there. I’m a first response kind of guy, and I want to use that to help people who are in need.”

Now Christian spends his Tuesdays and Wednesdays working hand in hand with those who are experiencing the same struggles he’s worked so hard to overcome. And, Christian’s dedication to his peers has already made a huge impact on the program’s successes. Service members who have struggled to find employment or housing now have a deeper connection with the program, and feel as though their goals are attainable thanks to Christian’s compassion, knowledge, and experience.

“It’s so important to have someone who can relate to the people we serve, making that bond between participants and program more cohesive. A lot of people open up to me because I’m a veteran, because I was in the program. A lot of times people have spilled their guts to me, and people need that. Sometimes, we lock down as veterans unless we are talking to other veterans.” Today, he continues to serve his country and work toward his degree in psychology, which he’ll complete in June.

“I want to do more. I know I have more to give. Thanks to Heartland Alliance, I’ve never been more certain of that.”

Join Us To Protect the Rights and Dignity Of Immigrants and Asylum Seekers

Heartland Alliance was founded over 130 years ago to provide support and uphold the dignity of immigrants and refugees. We have long supported policies that promote welcoming communities, and advance the fair treatment of and opportunities for immigrants and their families.  And we know that immigrants and refugees make our city and country stronger economically, safer, and more robust socially and culturally.  Despite our efforts, these past several months have been extremely difficult for the participants we serve.

The current Administration has actively worked to undermine the rights and humane treatment of those who are most vulnerable and, in particular, to stoke fear and confusion in immigrant communities. We strongly oppose these actions that harm individuals seeking safety in the U.S. and that erode long-standing protections for immigrants and asylum seekers. 

We are seeing a loss of lawful status; enforcement strategies that terrorize communities and make U.S. borders hostile to asylum seekers; the erosion of the U.S. refugee resettlement programs; and an increased focus on detention and deportation. ALL of these actions strike at our core values and tangibly cause harm to the people we serve, our neighbors, and our communities.

And we are still picking up the pieces of the Administration’s abhorrent zero tolerance policy, which led to the forced separation of thousands of children from their parents.  As of today, Heartland Human Care Services (HHCS) is providing shelter to four of the ninety-nine children who had been in our care as a result of the zero tolerance policy.  We continue to do all that we can to reunite all of the children in our shelters with their families, as we strongly believe families belong together. 

We recognize that there is misinformation and confusion about HHCS’s shelter program for unaccompanied minors.  Some believe we should not provide shelter for unaccompanied minors who have entered this country alone, and that we should shut down our shelters altogether.  But how can we turn our backs on children who arrive at our borders alone and afraid, and in search of safety and a better life here in the U.S?  We believe that doing so would serve only to further undermine the immigration system in this country for the very people we were founded to serve. And that in the absence of our doing this work, we would see an increase in the inhumane detention of children and families we so vehemently oppose. 

Heartland Alliance is tackling these issues head-on through policy advocacy, legal and support services, and public education efforts.  And we invite you to join us and hundreds of other organizations across the U.S. to fight against this erosion of rights and to promote the dignity of all people. 


Celebrating Summer at Chicago FarmWorks

At Heartland Alliance, we believe in a holistic approach to ending poverty – one that requires access to quality housing, healthcare, jobs, and justice. From the locally grown produce distributed across Chicago at our local food pantries, to the job training and placement programming – our Chicago FarmWorks Urban Farm in East Garfield Park embodies that holistic approach while also bringing communities together.

It’s been a busy summer at the farm. Leaders from corporate and civic life have come together to make the FarmWorks program a hotbed of volunteerism, community activism, and revitalization. As a result, over 500 people have visited the 2-acre farm to help with everything from weeding and plot planning, to planting and tending the crops, and even preparation for harvest time and fall food-pantry logistics. This work simply couldn’t be done without the tremendous help of our individual, corporate, group, and nonprofit partners.

Conagra Brands has generously invested financial resources to help ensure the farm is working at its best capacity to increase access to the healthy, local food that individuals and families need to reach their full potential. With Conagra’s support, FarmWorks has been able to create a drip irrigation system to improve yields; build a greenhouse and other structures to start more seedlings on-site and extend the growing season; and implement a more reliable and robust vegetable transport plan for our partner pantries. Thanks to Conagra, we’ve been able to increase our yield and distribution of additional servings of vegetables for communities experiencing food insecurity. This year alone we will grow and distribute 40,000 servings of food, impacting more than 1,400 Chicagoans.  

It takes a village to create such an impact, and we also couldn’t do this work without other partners like the City of Chicago, the Chicago Community Trust, and Chicago Tribune Charities/McCormick Foundation, as well as hundreds of volunteers from companies like BCG, Aon, Exelon, & Northern Trust. All have contributed hours of labor on the farm itself and invested resources to ensure the continued success of the program.

And most importantly, we couldn’t make these incredible impacts without the support, input, and hard work of the very people we serve. Heartland Alliance participants work the soil of the farm throughout the year, gaining valuable employment experience and education. We work one-on-one with the community in the constant effort to build a more-impactful program and to provide produce that the community most wants to eat. Tomatoes, hot peppers, spinach, lettuce, radishes, mustard greens, collard greens, green beans, onions, potatoes, okra, cucumbers, summer squash – we grow over 20 different types of produce, all recommended by the community itself.  As a result, nearly 80% of our participants reported satisfaction with the quality and variety of the produce they received at our Vital Bridges food pantries.

And you, too, can help make an impact! Throughout the year, the Chicago FarmWorks program has monthly volunteer days where anyone can join in the fun and get their hands dirty. Check out the Heartland Alliance Facebook Page for upcoming events or learn more about FarmWorks here.

Jessica Surma of FarmWorks

With a green thumb and a passion for community building, Jessica Surma creates impact through farming as the manager of our Chicago FarmWorks urban farm. For Jessica, success is all about growth – and she finds it in all aspects of the job.

What got you into this work?

I always knew that I needed to have a job that gave me the opportunity to work outside. Before running FarmWorks, I spent a lot of time working in environmental education and policy. It was great, impactful work, but I my passion was to have a direct impact on my local communities. I grew up around here, and when I learned about urban agriculture – and the impact it has on providing job opportunities, food security, and community engagement opportunities, it was a no-brainer.

I started volunteering at a lot of local farms and gardens and working a lot in food-security – and eventually I jumped at the opportunity to help run 2 acres of urban farmland when Chicago FarmWorks popped up.

Why is this work important to the community? To the people we serve?

I find it is really important to use the space a community already has – whether it be a vacant lot or abandoned building – and transform it and turn it into something positive. FarmWorks serves as an outlet for jobs, food, and a community coming together. That gives people something to be proud of in the neighborhood.

East Garfield Park can get a lot of bad press, and this shows that there is more to this incredible neighborhood than what the papers write about. Similarly, green space gives people the chance to heal, grow, and thrive. It’s incredible seeing people who were down or unwell spend a few hours a day at the farm, and we watch them change dramatically.

On another note, many pantries don’t have a lot of healthy food options. This program was able to provide over 37,000 servings of fresh produce to our Heartland Alliance Vital bridges food pantries across the city.

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

I spent years looking for the job that I wanted – and finding a place that will pay you for your passion is a special thing. I knew pretty early in the job that I was in the right place. We were doing our first honey harvest (we have a few bee colonies), and we had so many folks from the community excited to receive that honey and see the results of our care and work – it was really special.

What is your favorite part of your job?

I love seeing the transformations in people that come to our program – both in their interest in the farm and in their confidence to work. It’s invigorating to see people get excited about growing food and enjoying the life on the farm, as well as finding the confidence to speak with supervisors and employers. It sort of happens all at once, and it really is fulfilling.

How can others help your work?

We’re always looking for volunteers! We’ve got monthly volunteer days. We’re also happy to have corporate, church, or school groups come out. Click here to volunteer.

Learn more about FarmWorks here.

Heartland Alliance Responds to Senator Dick Durbin’s Letter About Our Shelters

July 17, 2018 – Recent allegations about our programs are deeply troubling as they do not reflect our values or the quality of care we strive to provide. We initiated an investigation immediately upon learning of these allegations over the weekend, and we support Senator Dick Durbin’s call for an investigation of our programs from the Office of Inspector General. If any investigation reveals that a staff member placed a child in danger or did not follow protocols, we will immediately remove them from their duties. We have augmented the staff capacity and oversight at our shelters while we await the outcome of any and all investigations, and all shelter staff are receiving additional mandatory training on trauma-informed care by the end of July.

Ensuring the safety and well-being of children is our top priority. Children who arrive alone at our shelters after being forcibly separated from their parents are scared and sad. Our childcare staff, clinicians, and social workers understand their trauma and are dedicated to supporting them during an incredibly difficult time. We have extensive policies, procedures, and standards of care that guide our approach to ensure the safety and well-being of all children in our care. We provide a structure of learning and play at our shelters, children are given age-appropriate chores, and we nurture all children in our care. We are proactive in preventing the spread of communicable illnesses among children in our residential shelters. And it is not our practice to ever use injections for behavior management.

Heartland Alliance is a 130-year-old human rights organization that has been providing shelter to unaccompanied minors for more than 20 years. We stand alongside children seeking safety in the U.S. and fervently believe that families belong together. We believe that people have the right to seek asylum in the United States and that they should not be criminalized for seeking safety here.

Important Perspective on Our Work with Migrant Children

July 16, 2018 – We are troubled to learn of the concerns about our programs as recent stories do not reflect our values or the quality of care we strive to provide. Heartland Alliance is a 130-year-old human rights organization that has been providing shelter to unaccompanied minors for more than 20 years. We stand alongside children and families seeking safety in the U.S. and we fervently believe that families belong together. The children who have come to our shelters after being forcibly separated from their parents are scared and sad. They have been through a heart wrenching experience with which our trained childcare staff, clinicians, and social workers deeply empathize. We have extensive policies, procedures, and standards of care that guide our trauma-informed approach to ensure the safety and well-being of all children in our care. While this does include daily routines and structure, age-appropriate chores, and practices to prevent the spread of communicable illnesses, we understand how these practices may be experienced by young children who are already suffering emotionally from being apart from those they love most. We take any concerns about our program extremely seriously and, as a matter of protocol, appropriately report, investigate, and address each matter that comes to our attention.

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Join us in keeping children safe

June 22, 2018 – Heartland Alliance has been highlighted in the media for the services we provide to unaccompanied minors in the Chicagoland region. 

See below for ways you can help and get involved.

For nearly three decades, Heartland Alliance has been providing shelter to children who cross our borders alone, seeking safety.  We provide a safe, healing environment for children as they work to reunite them with family members. 

In the last six weeks, this work has begun to include a small share of children who have been separated from their families at the border as a result of the administration’s Zero Tolerance policy.  Although Heartland Alliance has nothing to do with the decision to separate children from their parents, we are doing everything we can to keep children safe while they are entrusted in our care. 

As a human rights organization, this is what Heartland Alliance has always done for individuals who are most vulnerable—providing respectful services; working to secure access to justice; and shaping policies that promote equity and opportunity for all.  

  • Donate now to help increase mental health supports, accelerate family reunification efforts, and advocate for safety and justice.
  • Learn more about the journey of unaccompanied minors and Heartland Alliance’s work.
  • Shape the conversation and mobilize support for this important issue on Facebook and Twitter.
  • Write a card for a migrant child to show you care. You can mail cards to Heartland Alliance, 208 S. LaSalle, Chicago, IL 60604.