Deckin’ the Halls with Community Engagement Manager Celeste Johnson

Celeste Johnson embodies a spirit of equity and opportunity for all through her dedication to engaging community partners with the work of Heartland Alliance. Bringing expertise from her time on Capitol Hill, Celeste challenges people to work together to support our participants – especially around the holidays.

How did you get into this work?

I moved to Washington, D.C. and interned in the U.S. House of Representatives after receiving my undergrad degree. My favorite part of the internship was helping the constituents in my congressperson’s home district and listening in on the lobbyists and activists who would meet with him. Through this experience, I decided a place where I could both assist people in need and work in an area I’m passionate about was the nonprofit sector. I’ve worked in several areas of nonprofits including development, event planning, project management, and e-commerce. My favorite area by far is where I am now, engagement.

Why is this work important to the community and those we serve?

In my role my responsibilities include, but are not limited to, coordinating in-kind donation drives, group volunteering activities, and being the liaison to the Heartland Alliance Associate Board. All of these pieces of my work can be summed up into “building advocates and champions of our mission.” This mission-driven work is extremely important to any nonprofit, especially Heartland Alliance. Our champions put in hours of volunteer work, give donations throughout the year, and spread the word about importance of the amazing work we are doing together.

Was there a moment where you knew you were in the right job?

My first in-kind campaign at Heartland Alliance was for one of our youth programs in 2017. I was two weeks into my job and immediately enjoyed the liveliness of my position and how it took me to different areas of Chicago. I also learned how to drive a U-Haul…very quickly! The outpouring of generosity and kindness from the community was also extremely refreshing to see during this time.

What is your favorite part of your job?

I learn something significant and new every day. There are so many great people who work or volunteer for Heartland Alliance and have many different perspectives and ways of thinking. It’s also great to hear from the people we serve when I have the opportunity through my work.

How can others get involved in your work?

We have many different ways to get involved, from joining a board to volunteering or being part of a donation drive. How one can get involved is based on one’s availability and areas of interest. A simple way is to ask questions, learn more about the people we serve, and to advocate for and with them.

Serving those who serve: Melissa Kahn

Melissa Kahn is a therapist and advocate. Her early work at Bellevue Medical Center in NYC at the start of the AIDS crisis shaped her philosophy and passion for serving vulnerable populations – even when it’s not popular. In her personal life, she’s volunteered for the Illinois Holocaust Museum, Northwestern Medicine, and World Chicago – and has now brought that passion for service to Heartland Alliance as our volunteer manager. See why she does what she does below:

What got you into this work?

I have a background in healthcare, quality of life, and this job really sparks that passion of enriching the lives of others. I’ve known about Heartland Alliance for years, and I’m a firm believer that when a door opens you run right through it. I also know the importance of volunteers in making that difference for nonprofits, so when this opportunity opened up I took it.

Why does this work make a difference to our community? To the people we serve?

Especially with the political climate today, there are many who feel a sense of helplessness and don’t know how to make an impact. When people come to us and realize just how much there is to be done, and how you actually can help, it motivates the greater population. I feel like we’re giving people their hope back.

When did you realize that you knew you were working in the right place?

When I got the chance to meet staff right at the beginning of my work here, I was floored by all the amazing work that was really going on here. I knew of Heartland Alliance, but the scope really is so surprisingly huge. To get a chance to be a part of an organization that is so committed to the community at large – and to have such a commitment to human rights – it was all very important to me.

Favorite part about your job?

I love getting to go to all of our locations all across the city. I get a chance to be creative and bring new people on board in unique ways to impact the lives of others. Every time I get to hear the stories of our volunteers and see the impact that they make on our organization – it’s a real privilege. These folks add so much extra value to the work that we do.

How does someone get involved?

If someone is interested in volunteering, check out our website and educate yourself on all of the incredible things we do. Reach out to me via our volunteer application and we will work together on finding an experience that empowers you and that enriches the lives of our participants.

Spotlight on Volunteers

Heartland Alliance is grateful to have the support of thousands of volunteers across our many service areas. The fight for equity and opportunity for ALL people is a community-wide effort, and it’s your support that helps us move the needle. Our volunteers serve in countless different capacities, finding unique ways to make a difference for the people we serve. Check out just a few of their stories below:

Learn more about volunteering with Heartland Alliance.

Adopt A Family: Giving More Than Presents

For the staff and participants of Heartland Alliance, the holiday season began months in advance. We put on our Santa hats in October and keep them on until we can deliver the thousands of presents we collect through our annual Adopt a Family programming. Each year, your energy and donations are transformed into something much bigger than just coats and hats – you are providing a welcoming, warm hand to individuals and families often forgotten during the season of giving.

And you all do it so, so very well. Just look at our longtime partners at the Boston Consulting Group – for years, BCG has come to bat for individuals we serve. This year, the team adopted 50 families from our Asset Building and FamilyWorks programs – primarily serving single moms working to become self sufficient.

Lauren Slowik has been managing the BCG Adopt a Family for years now, noting that it’s a highlight of the year for the whole team.

“This has become a tradition in our office and something we look forward to as a team each year. Each year our team grows so we ask to take on more individuals to support. We always like to take on as many families as we can, so we can help as many individuals in the Chicago area!”

For Lauren, born and raised in Chicago, the satisfaction of knowing she’s making an impact in her home town is everything.

“This is a pretty big task to take on, but I am delighted to participate. At times, the drive is stressful, but I know it will pay off when 50 families in our community have presents to open on Christmas morning. I would love to see the expression of these individuals because I know how great it feels on my end.”

Shawn Wax, VP of Development for Columbia College Chicago, and his team adopted a family new to Chicago – refugees from Burma. His team’s excitement to make a difference for one family is contagious. The team was particularly excited to serve individuals who are still adjusting to life in a new country.

“When we learned of the Adopt a Family program and its impact on families in need as they transition to a new country, we immediately knew we wanted to be a part of it. This really is the most wonderful time of the year.”

That drive to connect with community members has helped us serve over 500 families this year alone – making the holiday season truly memorable for thousands of our participants, like those we serve in our refugee resettlement and refugee health programs.

Mohamad and Katijah, parents of four young children and newly resettled Rohingya refugees, are still new to the concept of the holiday season. As Mohamad works and Katijah cares for her youngest, the Adopt a Family program has ensured that all of their children will get to enjoy the holiday spirit. Toys, winter boots, and clothing were shipped to their door just a few days prior – but for Mohamad, the gifts came upon their arrival to their new home just over two years ago.

“We feel like this is our own country. We’ll be happy no matter what from now on. Never again do I have to worry.”
Mohamad and Katijah shared their appreciation for the smiles on their children’s faces. More so, they are grateful for the sense of connection to those who care enough to give to strangers.

“We love the idea of this program. Even the people giving actually get to receive – they receive the comfort in knowing they have made us very happy. We are getting the things we really need, and hope they understand that.”

Heartland Alliance Youth Ambassador Honored

On May 11th,  Heartland Alliance Youth Ambassador, Jahkil Jackson, was honored at the 42nd Annual Association of Fundraising Professionals Chicago awards luncheon. Jahkil received the Outstanding Youth in Philanthropy Award for his work through Project I Am to build awareness of homelessness and to help those in need by distributing what he calls “Blessing Bags ” – small bags filled with items like socks, hygiene supplies, granola bars, bottled water, and more. Heartland Alliance’s President, Evelyn Diaz, attended the event to celebrate Jahkil, thank him on behalf of the many Heartland Alliance participants who have received his bags, and to encourage this amazing future leader to keep striving for social change.

Celebrating Our Volunteers

In celebration of National Volunteer Week, which takes place every April, Heartland Alliance is showcasing our volunteers, their contributions, and the ways in which we offer our thanks to them for their hard work, dedication, and commitment to our vision to create Equity and Opportunity For All. 

Last year, almost 2,000 volunteers completed a total of 164,000 hours of service across 16 Heartland Alliance programs. Our amazing volunteers help expand the reach of Heartland Alliance into more communities than we could reach alone and contribute profoundly to the scope of services we can offer to our participants. From providing youth mentorship to pulling weeds at our urban farm, to staffing airport information kiosks and ESL classes for newly arrived refugees, our volunteers use their own personal expertise to help us make a difference in thousands of lives.

Getting Ready for Spring

For the second year in a row, My Block My Hood My City spent Earth Day helping out at Chicago FarmWorks, Heartland Alliance’s urban farm and job training program in the East Garfield Park neighborhood. Hundreds of volunteers came out to prepare the farm for spring, working on projects from moving soil and mulch, to weeding, moving logs, and picking up trash. Volunteers of all ages got their hand dirty and learned about how Chicago FarmWorks works with participants to overcome barriers to employment, while also growing 30,000 servings a year of healthy, organic fruits and vegetables that get distributed to Heartland Alliance food pantries on the North, West, and South sides. Thanks to this amazing group of volunteers for spending the day with us and showing us their commitment to engaging in the community and making Chicago better one block at time.  

Hitting a High Note With Our Volunteers

There’s no better way to pay tribute than to have a choir sing your praises! Nearly 150 Heartland Alliance volunteers joined us on April 22 as guests for the House of Blues Gospel Brunch. In appreciation of their efforts, attendees enjoyed a morning full of singing, dancing and dining alongside fellow volunteers who contribute to our mission and participants’ well-being. The interactive show featured gospel singers from Chicago’s south side who engaged the crowd through their catchy choruses and brightly-colored outfits. Guests were also able to connect with new and familiar faces, as well as partake in a goodie bag giveaway. Heartland Alliance is truly grateful to have the support of so many dedicated volunteers, and we hope each of them felt our gratitude during this wonderful event!


Why We Get Involved

Every year, volunteers provide thousands of hours of service to Heartland Alliance programs. Each volunteer has their own reasons for getting involved but most center on a strong sense of community and a deep love of service to others. In honor of National Volunteer Week, we asked four Heartland Alliance volunteers to tell us in their own words, why they love serving others.

Hear directly from some of Heartland Alliance’s volunteers about why they volunteer and why this work is so important to them. Read more.

Why We Get Involved

Every year, volunteers provide thousands of hours of service to Heartland Alliance programs. Each volunteer has their own reasons for getting involved but most center on a strong sense of community and a deep love of service to others. In honor of National Volunteer Week, we asked four Heartland Alliance volunteers to tell us in their own words, why they love serving others.

Fay Abushaban, Women’s Empowerment Project, Refugee and Immigrant Community Services

“I volunteer because I love helping others, especially because I know how it feels to need help. 14 years ago, Heartland Alliance gave me peace of mind by providing me with a pro bono attorney to help me with my immigration status. So now, I’m trying to pay it forward by volunteering for Heartland. My favorite part is to see that I’m helping someone make good changes that will help them have a better life. It’s an experience that leaves you with new skills, teaches you knowledge, and makes you appreciate what you have.”

Paul Richard, Travelers Aid, O’Hare Airport

“My background is Naval aviation, so one of the reasons I volunteer at Travelers Aid is because I love airplanes. I used to work on them in the Navy during WWII. I’m an airplane nut and here, you’ve got airplanes all over the place. That’s part of what gets me out here. But how I originally got out here was that I was having breakfast with a friend who was already a volunteer and she said to me, ‘Paul, please come out and see us at O’Hare,’ – that was 15 years ago and here I am!”

Christina Campbell, Refugee and Immigrant Community Services

“I love to give back to the community, and feel more involved and engaged with others around me. Heartland Alliance has such a profound effect on different communities in Chicago, and helps us strive to make ourselves and each other better people and citizens. I have worked both as a volunteer teacher and tutor and knew this was the right place for me after my very first time teaching. Volunteering is so rewarding, for both the students and volunteers, and I’m excited to have the important role of helping immigrants and refugees transition and adjust to their lives here.”

Gerri Miller, Travelers Aid, O’Hare Airport

“I’ve been volunteering for Travelers Aid for 20 years. I just enjoy helping people and in the airport, there’s always something exciting going on. You’re talking to different people all the time. I enjoy traveling and I know how helpful it is to be able to have a question answered by a smiling person rather than always getting the answer from an iPhone. Knowing I’ve made a difference by making someone’s trip a little easier makes me happy.”