The weight of a backpack amounts to more than just pencils and notebooks. In a community like West Chicago, a backpack represents a student, a family and their access to basic needs resources. After the far west suburb was named one of the hardest hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, the community has been working with their students and families to make ends meet. The progress towards building back stronger continues.
WeGo Together for Kids is United Way of Metro Chicago’s Neighborhood Network lead agency in West Chicago. WeGo is a collective impact initiative that supports the health, safety and well-being of children and families in a community made up of predominantly Latinx immigrant families. Its overarching goal is two-pronged: to respond to the immediate need for resources, while also working to change inequitable systems and institutions so that no one is left behind in the first place. Particularly during the pandemic, WeGo has adapted and responded need by need.
“We’re really working alongside the community and listening to them as they say, ‘This is what we would like the community to look like,’” said Coordinator of Partnerships Joie Frankovich. “Rather than us as institutions coming in and saying, ‘We think we know what’s best for you. Here’s all of the things we’re going to do to save you.’”
WeGo identified that families needed school supplies, which led to the creation of the annual Back to School Bash in 2016. It was an in-person event at the local elementary school in collaboration with local network partners. The day was full of activities and a distribution of backpacks packed with school supplies. In 2020, the event shifted to a drive-thru format so that WeGo could continue to meet the exacerbated need for resources in the face of the pandemic.
On a warm day this past August, hundreds of cars passed through the Currier Elementary School parking lot in West Chicago, greeted by cheerful WeGo and school staff for their Back to School Bash backpack drive.
Anna Leurer, who has taught fifth grade at Currier Elementary School for 28 years, was one of the dozen staff members smiling, waving and handing off backpacks to the students passing through—many of whom she has taught personally.
“I feel that it’s my way to help and greet the kids and contribute to the families in a positive manner,” Leurer said. “This is a tight community where we help and look out for each other.”
The WeGo staff were excited about its successful outcome. They hoped to support 600 children in their West Chicago elementary school district that day. By the end of the event, they had excelled—the final tally came to 771 backpacks.
Still, Frankovich acknowledged they couldn’t serve every family who had the need.
“It is really challenging to have to turn people away. It’s challenging that this is the reality, in our entire country,” Frankovich said. “There will never be enough resources for everyone, and we have to change the actual systems that require people to need them in the first place.”
This fall, WeGo is working closely with families to support them in this new phase of the pandemic as many children have returned to school. Additionally, they’re securing early intervention opportunities to support mental health in students and families.
What seems as simple as an item on the back-to-school shopping list can be an added obstacle for many of the families WeGo serves. This is why they are committed to providing wraparound services that support a family and their struggles holistically.
“The hope is that families who are looking for school supplies can focus on spending their money elsewhere, on other bills,” Frankovich said. “They can simply say ‘It’s time to get school supplies; then we can pay rent, and we’re good to go.’”
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By Tate Samata, AmeriCorps Multimedia Journalist