Kat’s “One Summer Chicago” Experience At RICS Belmont

Sometimes, service work ends up becoming more than just a chance to help someone. Sometimes, those engaging in the work end up learning the most. For young people like Kat, the chance to be an ESL teacher has opened up just as many doors for her as it has for the people she helps.

Kat, has been a part of the One Summer Chicago program for the last three years. Between school years, Kat is employed in her community – in this case, working in our Refugee and Immigrant Community Services (RICS) Belmont ESL classes. She helps new Chicagoans from all around the globe gain a better grasp of English, understand new cultures, and find community.

 “I’ve been looking for a way to give back to the community – but I’ve gotten so much more than that.”

English isn’t Kat’s mom’s  first language. She has always worked hard to master the language, regularly looking to her daughter for guidance and taking courses at Heartland Alliance’s ESL center for years.

“I remember getting a little impatient with her at times. After working here, though, I see just how hard it is to learn a second language as an adult.”

Kat’s friendly, warm demeanor makes it easy to connect with her – and her popularity in the program makes her a great asset to the team. She spends a lot of time with students finding how they learn at an individual level. Sometimes, students prefer to start learning in their native tongue. Sometimes it’s easier to dive right into English.

Whatever the direction may be, Kat is patient and responsive. It’s tough work, and it takes great patience. Fortunately for Kat, she’s found out exactly what she’s made of during her time in the program.

“I’ve learned that teaching is not easy, and I’ve learned a lot about myself. I’ve always been looking for a sense of purpose. Here, I’m always ready to help and so many people are grateful for it.”

And that purpose provides a guiding light for the young Chicagoan. Although Kat makes a nice wage as a worker in One Summer Chicago, she really comes to the classes to help others. For her, it’s not just about teaching a few words or phrases, it’s about sharing that guiding light with others – showing them their future is just as bright.

Today, Kat’s mom has a little white board back at the house where she writes down words in English to practice and study. Kat used to pay little attention to that whiteboard but now, she has become more and more engaged with it – and with her mom’s journey to fluency. She often helps, writing definitions and pronunciations of whatever words are on the wall.

“You know, right now is a confusing time for people my age. We’re all just trying to figure out what we want to do with ourselves, what makes us feel good. Heartland Alliance has really helped me figure out the kind of person I am.”

Back to “Summertime Service Across the Alliance” »



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.”

Where We Stand on Immigration

June 28, 2019

“The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until we secure it for all of us.” – Jane Addams, humanitarian and contributing founder of Heartland Alliance

Evelyn Diaz, President
Heartland Alliance

With recent media coverage about the appalling conditions in which children are being held at Border Patrol detention centers, we know that some of you are concerned about possible comparisons to Heartland Human Care Services’ shelters for unaccompanied minors.

Let me be clear – there is no comparison. I encourage you to take a look here.

Heartland Alliance is a 130-year-old human rights organization that stands with individuals who are most marginalized and vulnerable. For the last 23 years, as part of its global humanitarian efforts, our affiliate Heartland Human Care Services has been providing shelter to unaccompanied minors seeking safety and refuge in the United States. 

We are acutely aware that the federal administration continues to dismantle the protections and services put in place for those seeking refuge. Threatening mass immigration arrests; removing funding for legal, education, and recreational activities for unaccompanied children; causing irrevocable traumas through forced family separation; reducing access to critical mental health services; and threatening to eliminate housing for undocumented immigrants are just a few of the horrors and barriers the administration is putting into place to work against individuals seeking safety and hope. This makes Heartland Alliance’s work to respond to the needs of marginalized populations more challenging and more important than ever.

The conditions in border patrol facilities are deplorable. Detention of this kind was outlawed by the Flores Settlement Agreement in 1997, which prohibited unaccompanied minors from being held in U.S. custody in detention facilities managed by law enforcement. It also mandated the humanitarian model of shelters that Heartland Human Care Services operates today.

We vehemently oppose the criminalization of children and families as a result of government immigration policies. We will always fight for the fair treatment of and opportunities for refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants. Our country is safer and stronger when we live up to these ideals.

And remember, you can always access tools for your family, friends, and neighbors and learn about our positions and actions by following us on social media (Facebook and Twitter) or online (National Immigrant Justice Center.)

Thank you for your commitment to our work on behalf of immigrant and refugee families during this extremely difficult time.

Learn more about our shelters »

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



World Refugee Day

More than 70 million people are displaced worldwide. On June 20th, World Refugee Day, we recognize the struggle and determination of refugees – and the Heartland Alliance staff & volunteers who help them rebuild their lives in Chicago.

World Refugee Day: Swissôtel Advocates for Refugees


Swissôtel Director of Housekeeping and a current housekeeping
employee share tips and tricks with students.

There are 70 million displaced people on the planet right now – and only a small percentage of the world’s refugees receive the chance to rebuild their lives a new country. For refugees who make it to the United States, the pressure to become self-sufficient comes on fast – as government benefits provided to refugees dry up after only three months in-country. As one of the largest refugee resettlement agencies in Chicago, Heartland Alliance is recognizing partners who have stood with refugees as they rebuild their lives – partners like Swissôtel Chicago, a longtime employer and educator that has helped refugees find living wage jobs in the hospitality industry for 7 years.

“Chicago is a city of immigrants. As a welcoming city, we take refugee resettlement very seriously,” said Nancy Callahan, Heartland Alliance Refugee Vocational trainer. “It takes a lot of work to rebuild your life in a new country, especially after the traumas of life as a refugee. Swissôtel Chicago understands the value that new Americans bring to the table, and have been an incredible advocate for refugees looking to find success through hard work.”

Within three months, the federal resources allotted to refugees come to an end. By that time, refugees need to find a home, begin learning a new language, and – most importantly – find a source of income. With so many barriers, it can often be quite difficult to find work that can support resettlement for an entire family. Since 2012, Swissôtel Chicago has assisted the Refugee and Immigrant Community Services (RICS) program at Heartland Alliance in building the skillsets of hardworking refugees.

“Our passion is connecting hearts all over the world. Partnering with Heartland Alliance gives Swissôtel Chicago the opportunity to connect with different cultures, build a diverse team and grow our family globally. Seeing the passion our 25 Heartland alumnus have to grow within our family inspires me to continue to support this worthwhile organization”. Ted Selogie, General Manager, Swissôtel Chicago.


Ruth Kidane, Front Desk Coordinator, Swissôtel Chicago


Through this unique partnership, Heartland Alliance leverages a highly skilled and team of hospitality workers to train refugees in customer services within our unique training facility. Within six weeks, participants are connected with businesses like Swissôtel Chicago, who have helped build the training curriculum, give tours and trainings at hotel properties, and ultimately employ participants. With a 90% employment rate, and jobs that often start off at $19 an hour or more, the training is changing the lives of our newest Chicagoans. For people like Ruth Kidane, Swissôtel Chicago and Heartland Alliance have provided unparalleled opportunity.

“Going through the hospitality program with Heartland Alliance opened a new opportunity to start a career. Swissôtel Chicago gave me a family when I didn’t have one. They supported me, developed me and opened my eyes to what a career could look like. In my short time here, I began working in housekeeping and after 8 months was promoted to Front Office. I encourage others to have an open mind when participating in RICS. Embrace any opportunity you are given because you never know where it may lead”. 

World Refugee Day: David and Shirley

David and Shirley Holdeman have done it all. Married for 50 years, the two have travelled the world – for both business and pleasure – and have maintained that spirit for adventure through service here in Chicago. The two are longtime volunteers at Heartland Alliance’s refugee resettlement program commonly known as RICS (Refugee and Immigrant Community Services). Their journey to becoming service-workers began around the time David had retired. The two were living in Tulsa, Oklahoma – and life was good.


“I was doing some part time work, and Dave was spending a lot of his time golfing. It was great, but we knew there could be more.”

With a daughter living and working in Chicago, the two had come through town several times before. They had loved the sense of action and diversity they experienced in the past, and decided to add some flare to their golden years here in the second city.

Very early on, the couple was introduced to their new hometown by their new neighbor – a longtime Chicagoan ready to open up and share his own experiences. That welcoming nature had an impact on the couple, and helped inspire the two to give back to their new hometown.

“What is around you should be taken care of – your community, your neighbors, it’s up to you to take care of them.”

They found that inspiration at their new church, where they met one Lea Tienou. A longtime social worker, Lea is the director of RICS – and the three connected over a shared interest in service. Among their conversations, David and Shirley learned more about the resettlement process – and how difficult that transition can oftentimes be. When refugees first move to their resettlement country, they most often come with very little.

Remembering their warm welcome to Chicago, the couple saw an opportunity to pass it on. At first, they started off small – sending in donations of toiletries and kitchen items. The apartments that refugees find themselves in come relatively bare, with just the essentials. David and Shirley quickly picked up on that need, and started to donate more household items – from decorations to furniture.

“We done a lot of traveling in our time, and have seen refugee camps in Nepal and other places,” said Shirley. “I can’t imagine what life must be like in one of those camps, or when they even make it here. It must be so overwhelming, and so we just want to do a bit to help.”

That little bit has grown over the years. The RICs team welcomes hundreds of new refugees on average every year, and that need for a welcoming gesture has only increased over time. David and Shirley, year after year, have met that need through service and passion. Today, the couple spends hours every month constructing furniture for new refugees. Beds, shelves, couches, chairs, David and Shirley have built hundreds of pieces of furniture for Chicago’s newest residents.

You can often find the two at the RICS storage space, where furniture donations are often dropped off unassembled. Together, they are helping our resettlement team build more than just furniture – they are helping rebuild lives in an inclusive, safe, and welcoming manner.

“We put together this stuff because, simply put, others need help,” said David. “If you have abundance, share that abundance – whatever that may be.”

World Refugee Day: Terence

The last 15 years have been busy for Terence. He moved to Chicago and started a family. He got his degree and is working toward a PHD in community psychology. He’s used his knowledge of five different languages to find work and build community. The days are quite demanding for the local community leader and Heartland Alliance employee.

As we honor World Refugee Day, Terence’s rise is something to celebrate. Terence is a refugee, having fled during the Burundi Civil war in the nineties. For over a decade, he lived in a number of refugee camps across Tanzania and Zambia, with few resources and virtually no support.

Terence’s new life began in 2004, when his resettlement paperwork suddenly processed in a rapid fashion – throwing him on a plane and flying him to Chicago with little to no information. That evening, he was brought to a small third-floor apartment on the northside, furnished with just an old fold-up couch and a refrigerator stocked with food. Terence did not eat that evening.

“I was still getting over all that had just happened. you cannot say you have an egg until you have it in your hand. That uncertainty of my resettlement was very, very stressful.”

It was difficult learning a new way of life in those first few years. Coming from a decade of hunger, violence, and uncertainty left Terence without much trust for his new home. But the city quickly welcomed Terence with open arms. Volunteers and teachers showed him community – and supported his incredible capacity to learn and grow. New friends from local immigrant and refugee communities taught him he was far from alone. Resettlement social workers ensured that he had the resources necessary to thrive.

One woman in particular made the biggest impact in his life. A retired Truman College professor took him under her wing after a chance encounter, bumping into one another in the school’s hallways. She would go on to show him his new city – teaching him about public transportation, American culture, language quirks and the like.

“She really helped me, and I’m so happy to have had her – I call her my mom. It inspired me to do the work that I do today. She told me I would be a good social worker, and now I am here today.”

Terence has been working for Heartland Alliance for thirteen years now – as a case manager, a translator, and shelter worker. He’s used his experiences, his five different languages, and his empathic connection with fellow refugees to help countless refugees and immigrants rebuild their lives in our city.

“I’m proud to work with Heartland because I have to give back. I’ve been helped, and I need to help other people to – especially new immigrants. Heartland helps you understand that you are home. That sort of support is very important – and I can give it.”

Terence believes that his new life in Chicago would be possible without those who chose to support him in his journey – and he’s continued that welcoming tradition ever since. Refugees from all walks of life know of Terence personally, and often greet him as a mentor and good friend. The embodiment of a helping hand, Terence looks forward to his future as a psychologist that serves vulnerable populations. He believes that we all have a part in welcoming our newest neighbors, and this World Refugee Day, he looks to you as well.

“Refugees are resilient, and can thrive in any situation. All that they need are resources.  They need you. Get close to your refugee neighbors, support local agencies like Heartland Alliance, and take the initiative.”

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.”

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!