Expanding Opportunity for Immigrants

In our constant pursuit of equity and opportunity for all people, Heartland Alliance is always looking for innovative ways to help the people we serve. We don’t rely on “the way it’s always been” in our programming, especially in today’s ever-changing economic and political landscape. When we see a chance for people to thrive, we take it.

That is exactly what our RICS Belmont ESL program did this past summer. With three new professional courses at our ESL training offices, we have begun to train participants for emerging opportunities in the medical, IT, and childcare fields.

For young people like Vlad, these new trainings have been invaluable. Originally from the Ukraine, Vlad has noticed vast differences between Ukranian and English – both in what you say and how you say it. According to him, these differences can make a world of difference when working with others.

“In the Ukraine, conversation is shorter. It’s not as polite, more straightforward. I’ve learned to be nicer in conversation in English, because it makes it easier to connect.”

Vlad is a recent graduate of our Advanced Information Technology course, which trains students on high-skilled computer programs. This is a steep hill to climb, especially for individuals building their English language skills Nevertheless, Vlad has excelled. He’s excited to combine his new language skills with his IT certificate, and find work for a company that allows him to connect others.

“My dream job is to help people, to transform them. I’ve found a niche in my life, and I think I’d like to help others do that.”

RICS Belmont services are for the entire community. For newly arrived immigrants and those who have been in the United States for many years, for individuals who need help learning English, and for people who want to help. Gabriella has been a resident of the Belmont Cragin neighborhood her whole life. A recent graduate of our medical interpreting course, her experience has been nothing short of transformational.

“I’ve learned so much. Medical interpreting is so much more than you think. In the medical field, you have to be very specific with how you are translating things – and can make a huge difference for the people you serve.”

Gabriella never even knew of the longtime community and education center in her own neighborhood until just this summer. Within just a few months of classes, she is now gainfully employed as a translator – and ready to help her neighbors and coworkers obtain the skills they need to succeed.

“Most of my neighbors are Hispanic, and knowing the situation now – I want my neighbors to know that they will benefit from this program. Go for it, take it. This is free, and the opportunities are great.”

Opportunity for all people is part of our core mission at Heartland Alliance. Whether that is helping new immigrants connect through a new language, or helping life-long Chicagoans find work – we are dedicated to providing the tools necessary to thrive.

“I’m very grateful for Heartland Alliance. I’ve found a career here. I’ve found new people. I’ve found a way to help people,” said Gabriella. “Heartland Alliance has helped me a lot in a very short amount of time.”

Humanitarian – Bob and Combined Insurance

Bob Wiedower of Combined Insurance knows just how difficult it can be to transition from military to civilian life. It’s why he’s dedicated so much time to ensuring Combined employs veterans, providing opportunity and community in their new lives. He’s also been an incredible supporter and advocate for our programs that house and help homeless veterans find work. You can see the impact that Bob and Combined have made on our Supportive Services for Veteran Families programming here.

What motivates you to do the work that you do? Why do you give your time, energy, and resources to these causes?

I am a retired Lt. Colonel who served in the US Marine Corps, and have a deep passion for assisting military members who are transitioning into the civilian workforce – as I have lived those challenges first hand.

I am able to carry out this passion every day as VP of Sales Development and Military Programs at Combined Insurance, and also as a volunteer with several military-oriented non-profit organizations.  I believe in giving back to our communities by helping organizations who provide needed services to those communities. I’m motivated and encouraged when I see individuals whose lives have been positively impacted by the work of those agencies.

How does your work with Heartland Alliance help this cause?

Heartland Alliance has a program which assists veterans who are homeless and/or out of work to get back on their feet and become self-sufficient, productive members of society again.  As a retired service member, I’m extremely interested in helping this population and am excited when I see the results of Heartland’s efforts. Combined Insurance has a long standing partnership with Heartland Alliance, contributing both charitable donations and volunteer time to its veteran and Chicago FarmWorks urban farm programs.

How should others help?

Find something your passionate about, and start supporting an organization that helps people that fit your passion.  Look for an organization with a long track record or support, and high marks with Charity Navigator and other review sites.

Back to “Honoring Our Humanitarians” »



Service – Giving Back to Veterans

Never Again. Since World War 2, that phrase has meant a lot to those who have served in the armed forces.

For Larry W., a soldier in the US Army in the 70s and 80s, never again has taken on new meaning. Up until last winter, Larry was one of the thousands of homeless veterans. Those two words are framed and hung up in his bedroom, where Never Again refers to his memories on the streets – and how he’ll do whatever it takes to stay housed. Knowing his work ethic, Larry will be just fine.

“I’m always on my feet. Always moving. It’s hard to get back on your feet, and you’ve got to want it. All of this year has been a blessing.”

The hardest part of life on the streets for Larry wasn’t so much the instability or danger. Instead, Larry was most hurt by the stigma and shame of his experience. Larry came from a family of service members. His father and his brother both retired in the military, and they all took great pride in their work and dedication. Larry is a worker. It’s what gives him purpose, what gives him pride.

Larry hated to take what he didn’t earn, and felt as though the cost of admission for free shelter was his sense of self-worth. For months, Larry would find small side jobs here and there, but travel was difficult without resources – and every job seemed set up to fail.


It wasn’t until Larry was referred to Heartland Alliance’s Supportive Services for Veterans and Families (SSVF) program that he found a fighting chance. Through transitional housing and case management, the SSVF team works to find stability and opportunity for those who have served our country.

“I remember all I wanted was some bus passes so I could get to work, but it was all totally different than I expected. My case manager helped with so much. She worked so hard, and it made me work even harder.”

Within just a few days, the paperwork was processed and Larry was moving into his own home. With a roof over his head, Larry changed his focus back to his sense of purpose. Larry wanted to work – and the SSVF team was ready to help him find it.

SSVF helped him write a resume and find the right fit. They worked on interview prep, found him some great interview attire, and supported Larry whenever he called. When Tyson foods gave a callback for an interview, Larry was thrilled – but more importantly, he was ready.

“You know, it feels like my service to my country is still following me today. I look at Heartland Alliance as a part of that service, they served me. We got that job together.”

Today, Larry’s house is fully furnished. His fridge is full. His apartment is set up exactly as he wants it. Larry has regained more than just his housing stability through SSVF, he’s regained his sense of pride and purpose. At Tyson, Larry’s work has been recognized by his bosses. He recently received a coin printed especially for Tyson employees who have served their country. ‘Thank you for your service’ is scrawled into the small gold trinket, and Larry keeps it in his back pocket at all times.

“The American Dream is about opportunity and community. It ain’t supposed to be easy. But through that hard work, you can find opportunity. Now I’ve got both opportunity and community, and I’m proud of it.”

Opportunity – The Driving Force for The American Dream

It’s an age-old story, an immigrant comes to Chicago with nothing more than the commitment to build a new future.

Margot did just that when she flew into Chicago with little else besides her work-visa, her determination, and her dreams of opportunity. An immigrant from Guatemala, today she raises her family in the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood. It has been twenty years since she got off that flight – and takes great pride in everything she has achieved for her and her family. 

“Now that I’ve spent half of my life here in Chicago, I can say I have found home. I have found the things that make me happy, now is the time I get to be a mom and help my children thrive.”

Today, she can check off one more achievement to her list. This year, Margot became a citizen of the United States of America.

Margot is an English as a Second Language (ESL) student at our Refugee and Immigrant Community Services (RICS) program, where she works with volunteers and full-time educators to gain a better foothold on the confusion of life in a foreign country. After her three children are off to school, Margot comes to the RICS offices to bolster her English and other skills alongside others looking to access resources to help them thrive here.

“The hearts of our volunteers are special. It is not easy trying to learn something new. You can tell these people want you to succeed. It has given me the confidence to learn.”

With new confidence and desire to access opportunity, Margot found herself spending more time at the facility to get CPR certified and attain a food safety license. These successes became quite the motivator, and eventually Margot set her sights on a goal she had held for a very long time. A year into her time at RICS, she decided to take on the goal of achieving U.S. citizenship.

“Even as a Green Card holder, you’re always thinking there could be problems. You’re always living in fear. I was tired of living that way.”


The RICS team helped her navigate the citizenship process, helping her coordinate meetings and file paperwork , as well as helped her study for the U.S. citizenship test. Margot spent a full year learning from text books and classes that aren’t dissimilar from a high school civics course – the stakes are higher, though.

The test takes only 10 minutes – an oral exam with a federal employee. However, for weeks, she anxiously awaited the meeting that would determine the rest of her life. In just a few brief minutes, those nerves melted away with a smile and a handshake from the person on the other side of the desk. She passed and was naturalized two weeks later.

“My children were so happy, and I saw just how proud they were. Now, I can achieve whatever opportunity I want.”

Today, Margot sees opportunity within her own neighborhood. She still spends time with the RICS team, continuing her English courses and providing support to her peers. She is also involved in her school district as a mentor for immigrant parents – working with a support group that helps address the confusions of language barriers and cultural differences.

Just as the RICS program has offered her the space to find the confidence and resources to succeed, Margot has found her American dream in supporting her community as a leader and guide for new immigrants.

“Life is busy – and immigrant parents don’t often have the time or resources to navigate these unfamiliar things. It’s up to us to do that. This is the opportunity of my life.”

Our Values: Equity & Opportunity for ALL.

This Independence Day, Heartland Alliance reflects on what we believe to be the strongest of American values. From Equity and Opportunity, to Civil Rights and Service – we believe that the best of America is found in everyday people working together to achieve that more perfect union. That’s why we fight every day to provide equitable access to healthcare and housing. It’s why we stand up for the civil rights of the vulnerable populations that we serve. It’s why we ensure that those who have served our country aren’t left alone in their time of need. See how we do this work in our stories below.

Facts About Our Shelters

Heartland Alliance is deeply committed to the fair treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, and has been committed to advancing human rights throughout our 130-year history. For the past 23 years, Heartland Human Care Services (HHCS), an affiliate of Heartland Alliance, has operated shelters to care for migrant children who arrive at the border unaccompanied. Leaving children alone at the border to fend for themselves or at risk of detention in deplorable conditions is unacceptable. The differences between our programs and what is being reported about Border Patrol detention facilities are many – below are just a few.

Without nurturing shelters and services like Heartland Human Care Services provides, unaccompanied minors who cross the border into the United States seeking safety are vulnerable to trafficking and other abuses. We know this after 23 years’ experience of caring for and reunifying thousands of children. Our mission to protect vulnerable children and connect them as quickly as possible to a safe environment is more important than ever.

Unaccompanied minors arrive to our country alone, scared, and often traumatized from their journey fleeing a dangerous situation. Heartland Human Care Services provides a compassionate, peaceful, and healing setting until they can be united with family or a sponsor in the U.S. For decades, we have served unaccompanied minors with the same level of strengths-based, trauma informed care as we do in all of our other programs.


Reported conditions at border facilities

Run by multi-lingual human service staff: teachers, therapeutic clinicians, case managers. Primary mission is child welfare/well-being through a trauma-informed approach

Run by government law enforcement: exist with the primary objective of detention and law enforcement

Heartland Human Care Services is a non-profit that serves people facing poverty, displacement, and injustice to help them achieve safety, stability, and success.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is one of the world’s largest law enforcement organizations and is charged with keeping terrorists and their weapons out of the U.S. while facilitating lawful international travel and trade.

Residential buildings that provide separate and ample space for meals, bedrooms, education, healthcare, and play

Cramped conditions, cages, holding cells

Dedicated bedtime and each child has their own bed

Lights on 24/7

Daily outdoor activity; weekly field trips to museums, parks, theaters, as well as cross-cultural experiences with local students and faith-based groups

Little to no outdoor activity

Fresh clothing and new toiletries provided upon arrival and
as needed

No toothpaste/soap, wearing dirty clothes

Three well-balanced meals and healthy snacks are provided daily

Poor food conditions

A dedicated staff member for up to 8 children, full access to healthcare and legal services, 6 hours of daily education, counseling, and staff dedicated to expediting family placement

Children often have no one addressing family placement or access to other supports



Important Implications to our Programming

David Sinski, Executive Director, Heartland Human Care Services

David Sinski, Executive Director
Heartland Human Care Services

June 13, 2019 – The current federal administration continues to make shameful policies that seek to destroy protections put in place for those seeking refuge in the United States. This makes our work to advance the rights and respond to the needs of marginalized populations – particularly the poor, the isolated and the displaced – more important than ever.

We are deeply committed to the fair treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, and have been committed to advancing human rights throughout our 130-year history. For the past 23 years, Heartland Human Care Services (HHCS), an affiliate of Heartland Alliance, has operated shelters to care for migrant children who arrive at the border unaccompanied – on average, we take care of about 3,000 children per year in our shelters, the vast majority staying with us for just one to two months as we provide safe harbor while connecting them with family.

Over the past year, this work has been even more challenging. This includes dealing with the aftermath of the Family Separation Policy last summer and the latest federal budget deficiency actions that would erode immigrant, refugee and unaccompanied children’s services across our nation prohibiting the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) from funding legal supports, education and recreation programs for youth in our shelters, and supplemental services for refugees.

This latest action, which we oppose, would for example eliminate activities such as English as a second language classes, lessons in math, art, social studies and reading, organized sports, and field trips – programming that is not only required for shelters licensed by the State of Illinois’ Department of Children and Family Services, but is at the core of providing a nurturing and supportive environment for the children in our care. We find this decision unacceptable, and are fighting against these cuts, urging Congress and the administration to resolve the supplemental appropriation immediately so critical services are not lost.

The refugees and children we care for are very diverse in race and ethnicity, they have often traveled thousands of miles – alone – and many are fleeing violence or very dangerous situations. They are often scared and very sad when they arrive. They might be sick, or perhaps they’ve been robbed or abused, and they often arrive with next to nothing. In particular, unaccompanied children are highly vulnerable to being misled or exploited. Many refugees and unaccompanied children are also dealing with the experience of significant trauma—often their reason for fleeing—including witnessing or being a victim of violence perpetrated by gangs, drug cartels, the government, or their own family members. When they come through our doors, we provide a peaceful, healing environment, staffed by caring professionals who are dedicated to their well-being and who work to reconnect them with their family or sponsor as quickly as possible.
These shelters exist to provide a safe haven for children who cross our borders – without them, we fear for where these children could end up and leaving children alone at the border to fend for themselves is also unacceptable. Unaccompanied minors who cross into the United States seeking safety and refuge are vulnerable to trafficking and other abuses, and our mission is to protect them and connect them to a safe environment in the U.S. Calling for the elimination of protections and services harkens back to an unfortunate time when children were held in detention facilities that were managed through a criminal justice approach. We will always fight for the fair treatment of and opportunities for immigrants and their families and we oppose the criminal prosecution and imprisonment of asylum seekers and their families. We know that immigrants and refugees make our city and country stronger.

Look Inside: Adriana Gracia, VRS & Opciones Saludables

Family is everything for Adriana Gracia, Director of Violence Recovery Services & Opciones Saludables. It’s why she’s dedicated to helping survivors of domestic violence find peace. It’s why she has developed programs that give young parents the skills and confidence to raise their families. Most recently, it’s why she is focused on building networks of social services to enhance access to mental health and educational services to underserved communities. Learn more about what makes her tick below!

What got you into this work?

My grandmother, when she moved here from Mexico, got a lot of help from her predominantly polish community. When she put down roots, she took that responsibility of serving those around her as well. She was so caring and nonjudgmental, and people were drawn to her because of that – and I take that spirit of service with me wherever I go.

So right out of college, I was working in child welfare, and saw a lot of families struggling with domestic violence. A lot of the children on my caseload were abused – both physically and emotionally. I wanted to work more with the families in supporting them on their healing journey.

Why is this work so important to the community?

With Violence Recovery Services, we’ve seen a real shrinkage of services in the last five years. That’s especially the case in communities where English isn’t the primary language. Sometimes you have to go really far out of your neighborhood to receive counseling, case management, or other services like this – especially if you’re looking for it in another language. And for Opciones Saludables, where we serve young parents, there’s still a huge gap in services offering young people the tools necessary to thrive. We’ve done great work offering those services not only to moms, but fathers as well.

I’m really excited about the work we’re doing here because we’re doing whatever it takes to get these services to our participants – wherever they are. We can really fill a need that most cannot provide, so we’re partnering with other organizations who are experiencing a need for these services, building trust in neighborhoods and with vulnerable populations.

When did you know you were in the place you needed to be?

When I realized just how dynamic my team was. We have a team of individuals who all have a variety of strengths, and a place where we can all be honest and feel vulnerable. I realized early on that what we had was special, and as a result our work to help people heal has been really effective.

What is your favorite part of your job?

I love that I get to do a little bit of everything in my role. I’ve been really fortunate to continue to carry a case load, and it keeps me committed to the field. I love working with our interns, providing them support and guidance on their paths. As a program leader, I really love to find new ways to incorporate our staff in expanding our work.

How can others help in your work?

It’s important to find out more about what we do here. There’s something very different in our work, and we’re always excited to share how we help and provide services.



Volunteer Spotlight: Reach77 Asks “What Do You Need?”

Heartland Human Care Services’ anti-trafficking program, Freedom from Trafficking (FFT), partners with Traffick Free, a faith-motivated organization in Chicago that raises awareness about human trafficking in the Chicagoland area. Anytime FFT has a need, Traffick Free sends a call to action to their volunteer network. That is how Lauren and Kourtney Seaman came to volunteer with FFT.

One day, Lauren and Kourtney dropped off donated girls’ clothes that they no longer needed and began a conversation with FFT staff about the program’s work and the needs of survivors – about 75% of whom are undocumented when they begin services. At the time, a barrier many program participants were facing involved accessing culturally appropriate food at the local food pantries. Pantries often also require some form of identification and/or their hours are sporadic, making it difficult for FFT participants to obtain food. Kourtney and Lauren looked at each other and said “We have a storage closet in our building, why don’t we make it a food pantry for your program?” And they did. But their generosity and huge hearts did not stop there.

In January 2014, FFT was working with an undocumented female survivor of labor trafficking from Africa named Mariam. She was staying at a shelter but her allowable time to stay there was ending and she needed somewhere safe to go. After many phone calls to programs across the city, FFT staff sent a desperate email to Traffick Free explaining Mariam’s situation. By that evening, Kourtney had called and offered to let Mariam stay in their spare bedroom. But they could only house Mariam for up to two weeks because Kourtney’s mom was coming to stay with them. Kourtney was pregnant with their second daughter and due in just a few weeks.

When Mariam first arrived, she would stay in her room much of the time but slowly, she began to have meals with Lauren and Kourtney’s family. She then began to cook meals with them from her home country. She spent more of her time in their living room than in her room. She was there when their second daughter was born. Lauren and Kourtney adjusted their home and welcomed both Kourtney’s mom and Mariam to stay.

FFT staff worked hard to identify a transitional housing program that had an opening and could take Mariam, but when they did, they found out there was a catch. She had to be considered “homeless” in order to get housing, meaning that Mariam had to move out of Lauren and Kourtney’s safe and comfortable home and into a homeless shelter in order to qualify for the program.

Once back in the shelter, it took months for the transitional housing program to find Mariam an apartment due to landlords not accepting her without credit and without a social security number. During the time she was waiting for her studio apartment, Mariam spent nearly every day at Lauren and Kourtney’s home because she felt safe and supported there.

Lauren and Kourtney along with their church group, Reach77, remain in Mariam’s life today. She visits them weekly for meals and for their Bible study group. She joins them for holidays. She visited when their third daughter was born. And, with the help of Reach77, Mariam moved into a new apartment with her permanent Housing Choice Voucher through the Chicago Housing Authority — a program that launched in April of 2017 after much advocacy by anti-trafficking programs, the Administration of Children and Families, CHA, and HUD. It was stories like Mariam’s that helped Freedom from Trafficking convince leaders that something had to change within the housing system to ensure survivors like Mariam did not have to be re-traumatized over and over again in order to find a safe place to lay their head at night.

Lauren, Kourtney, and Reach77 have been invaluable allies and partners in this work. They constantly ask “what do you need,” and then quickly respond with “okay, we are on it.” The Freedom from Trafficking program would not be able to carry out the critical services that we provided to survivors without the support and generosity of this group and volunteers like Lauren and Kourtney.

Volunteer Spotlight: Specialized ESL Training with Jan

Krystina is quite familiar with hard work. A doctor from Belarus, she became the head of the infectious disease department in her hospital before turning thirty.

But when Krystina and her husband went to the American Embassy to get their visas to live in the US, they came face to face with their biggest challenge yet: their English could hardly get them through even a basic conversation with their immigration clerk.

“If you want to be successful here, you need to learn English. We thought we knew English pretty well, but in reality we understood nothing.”

Even still, Krystina and her family emigrated to the US with visas in hand. The American dream all seemed to be falling into place, but Krystina still dreamt of continuing her path as a doctor. That meant one thing: she was going to need to understand English far better than she did at the embassy.

Upon arriving to the US, Krystina sought out the help of Heartland Alliance’s Refugee and Immigrant Community Services programing in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood. The organization has been teaching ESL and citizenship classes to Chicago’s immigrant populations for years, and Krystina felt at home almost as soon as she walked through the doors.

Classes began with simple conversational English and phrases that would help around the city, and over the months Krystina grew in confidence and ability. But when it came to knowing the language necessary to pass medical exams, she knew she needed a little extra help. It was about six months into her training that she met Jan Lupinek, a retired programmer and longtime ESL volunteer.

“I’ve worked with students who started off at a very low level and watching them grow is very gratifying – and Krystina’s situation was something I grew very interested in very quickly.” Jan said.

There are 7 volumes of medical licensing that needs to be studied in order to pass three exams to be recertified in medicine here in the US. With such a huge mass of words and phrases – and virtually none of it conversational – the two had their work cut out for them.

“I haven’t done anything quite as technical as this,” Jan said. “But it’s been a real pleasure getting to do something so difficult.”

Every week, the duo is studies a whole mess of scientific and technical language. Microbiology, physiology, pathology, biochemistry, anatomy, Krystina’s experience in all of these fields mean nothing until she can understand them in fluent English – and she is flourishing. Jan’s specialized system of teaching gives Krystina more than just a surface-level understanding of the language.

“In ESL, a lot of teachers just explain what to do without explaining why,” said Jan. “That’s not me. It really is about understanding how the language works, that’s how you can truly teach proper English.”

Krystina is now making plans to take the first exam this summer. Within less than one year, she’s gone from hardly understanding English in an Eastern European embassy to reading high-level medical texts in fluent English. She’s spoken with a handful of her Belarussian colleagues that have also made the move to the US, and they seem quite excited for her future.

“I love Heartland, and I’m very grateful for Jan. You know, I can’t find medical vocabulary in regular classes, and nobody else I know needs this help I feel real improvement. I feel like I read faster, like I pronounce things better, and I can thank Jan for all of that.”