Good-doers in Austin — Part Two

Monday night Sept. 30 at Ascension, the OP&RF Community of Congregations gathered a panel of people who are trying to make Austin a better place. Wrote about it here. Said there was more. Here it is:

Kathryn McCabe, exec director of the Cluster Tutoring Program, white, petite, her program ongoing since 1989, when they began tutoring at Pine Avenue United Church, do it now also at First United Church on Lake St. in Oak Park. Students who come for tutoring “are not well educated.” Reading skills are low: 70% are a year or more below grade level. A once-a-week conversation with someone with good vocabulary helps. Results are encouraging: 73% are at or above grade level after three years in the program. Most come to the Austin site, where they need volunteers.

Michele Zurakowski, Executive Director of Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry, also white and petite (excuse the male chauvinism, I havent finished my attitude classes): They serve hungry people from 12 zip codes, including all of Austin. Problem is “food insecurity,” not knowing where the next meal is coming from. In Austin, 34% have this problem — 34,000 people. The area also is a food desert, as in the average 5.9 miles to a supermarket for blacks in the city, half as far for fast food. 20% of the insecure are single mothers. They cant choose their diet. One-third are children. The pantry supplies 45 pounds of “fresh, very good” groceries per family who comes to the pantry.

Cristy Harris, executive director of eight-year-old Prevail, formerly Walk-In Ministry, based at First United Church, Oak Park: Helps families in financial crisis. Once in poverty, it’s hard to get out. In Austin over 20% of adults are not working.

Lynda Schueler, MPA, Executive Director, West Suburban PADS: Started 22 years ago as Tri Village PADS. Homeless from Austin go to Oak Park or Pacific Garden Mission, named after the beer garden it replaced on Van Buren Street in 1888, now on Canal Street a mile south of the Loop, which receives 1,000 sleepers a night, she said. 38 come to Oak Park from Austin, 70 from Oak Park itself.

Rev. Reginald E. Bachus, MDiv, pastor of Friendship Baptist Church and executive director of Austin Coming Together, a multi-organization collaborative that aims to build a community development system, praised this meeting as fostering trust and unity.

Rev. Walter Jones, executive director of Fathers Who Care, spoke in vigorous preaching style, with ample use of emphasis, hitting every fifth or tenth word hard, changing volume from whisper to shout. “Life! Reality! Not a joke!” he said at one point. He solicited (and got) applause for “sixty young people” who were employed this summer, “thanks to our elected officials,” whom he called “servants of social change.” Describing his (and their) goals as to “empower people to change.”

Rep. La Shawn Ford (8th District), called attention to two other elected officials Rep. Camille Lilly and Alderman Deborah Graham, sitting in the back. “If Austin is weak, so is Oak Park,” he said, suggesting that “a small-business committee” was in order. He also declared himself opposed to state-employee pension reform that reduces retirees’ benefits.

Questions and comments at the end included the meeting’s starkest depiction of life in Austin, voiced by a man from the Bobby E. Wright mental-health center, at Madison and Kedzie, who quoted a client in Austin who heard traumatic events described — drive-by shooting, being shot or jumped, domestic violence — said immediately, “That’s every day.” Mental illness, the man said, has reached “epidemic proportions” in Austin.

The meeting’s purpose was more clearly met with answers to the question to the panel from a member of Unity Temple, Oak Park:

How can Oak Parkers help?

1. Circle Family Health Care’s Dr. Hines: “We need doctor and nurse volunteers.”

2. Fathers Who Care’s Rev. Jones: “Just communicate,” he said, “Love each other! I believe in my heart” that is the way. Give school supplies. “Don’t it feel good to help somebody?” he asked.

3. Bethel New Life’s Edward Coleman: Business owners, come and show how it’s done. Help our businesses connect with supply chains on business-to-business basis. Bethel had much success because of help from Oak Parkers.

4. Austin Coming Together’s Rev. Reginald Bachus: Come to our meetings.

5. Rep. Ford: “Do as the pope says, he’s a man of the time.”

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