Honoring 12 Community Heroes from Chicagoland in An Extraordinary Time

Brothers Carter and Noah Collins of Park Ridge are the 2021 Blood Services Heroes. They have proven that you are never too young to start making a difference. In 2017, after Category 4 Hurricane Harvey hit Texas and Louisiana, the boys decided they wanted to help.

“We saw what the Red Cross was doing, and we wanted to help, even though we couldn’t donate blood at the time [due to our age],” the brothers explain. “So, we contacted the Red Cross and asked how we could help.”

The boys worked with the Red Cross to host their first blood drive at their school and worked hard to promote it and invited friends to run the canteen at the drive.

From then on, the blood drive became an annual tradition. However, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic changed their blood drive plan. The brothers were unable to host a drive at their school due to its closure, but they were determined to make it happen.

“We had to find a new place and [found a] sponsor at a local community church, and that’s where we held it this year,” Noah says. “We want to consistently help every year, and even though COVID made it harder to set it up, we were successful this year.”

Despite the pandemic, the boys welcomed more donors and collected more blood than in prior years.

Written by Communications and Marketing Intern, Matthew Pontious

Chef Q Ibraheem is receiving the 2021 Disaster Services Hero Award. The renown Chicago Chef, organized popular underground dinners in Chicago and worked with non-profit organizations to teach children about cultural awareness through food diversity. However, everything came to a stop with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In March, we literally lost everything. After crying for two days, I jumped in and started calling [my] parents and [they] were calling me. I realized that people really needed food. It was my eureka moment. I realized I didn’t have a lot monetarily to give, but I know how to cook food. I know how to make healthy, delicious food. And I know that people would readily receive restaurant quality food, free food during a pandemic,” adds Chef Q.

To address food insecurity and help her community, Chef Q created “Kids with Co-Workers,” a delivery farm-to-table meal program, which provides four course meals to families in need.

“There were so many people that stepped in. There were children that reached out to me and they created little index [cards] to put in our children’s meals. It’s been wonderful. I’ve not acted alone.  By no means would I be able to do this by myself,” says Chef Q.

As more people became familiar with her mission, the delivery service grew larger and Chef Q opened a secondary kitchen to be able to serve the increasing number of families in need. As the operation grew, she gained support from other organizations, including the Chicago Bulls, who helped with funding.

Currently, Chef Q provides more than 200 meals per day to struggling families including many seniors. She has even hired laid-off bus drivers to help deliver the food.

Written by Communications and Marketing Intern, Matthew Pontious

Phalon Carpenter is being recognized with the Education Award. She is a professional mentor with Friends of the Children, an organization that identifies Chicago families facing adversity and pairs their children with a personal mentor for support. The organization is designed to work with youth to help them achieve academically from kindergarten until they graduate from high school.

Each mentor at Friends of the Children is assigned eight kids. Phalon currently works with eight girls, made up of six second graders and two third graders. She spends two hours a week in school with them and two hours a week outside of school for extra help and extracurricular activities.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, her students’ families faced new challenges as the school turned virtual. To help make their transition as smooth as possible, Phalon provided computers and wi-fi to all the families who lacked the technology needed to complete the work.

“I’m just trying to make it as easy as possible for them to learn in the process, while trying to navigate new technology,” said Phalon.

Despite the uncertainty of the pandemic, Phalon makes an effort to stop by the children’s houses to drop off books, food supplies, or anything else the family may need to support them.

Written by Communications and Marketing Intern, Matthew Pontious

Esther Lindor is the online market coordinator at Chicago’s Lakeview Pantry and the 2021 Essential Services Hero. In 2019, Esther became one of the organization’s earliest innovators to help lead and manage an online marketplace that shifted how the Lakeview Pantry offered food.  

The new online system gives customers full access to the pantry without leaving their homes. People can select their food from a website and choose a convenient pick-up time.

“Our clients are able to place their orders online. They can choose the day and time that they can pick up their order. They come through and are more than welcome to stay in their car. We help load all of their groceries into their vehicle, along with a bouquet of flowers and then send them on their way,” explains Esther.

As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Lakeview Pantry Online Market was in place and was able to safely deliver food to families.

During the pandemic, the Lakeview Pantry also created pop-up pantries in various communities in Chicago. These sites included the Sheridan Market, La Casa Norte’s Fresh Market, Avondale, and certain South Side locations. Currently, the Lakeview Pantry serves more than one million meals to thousands of households each year.

Written by Communications and Marketing Intern, Matthew Pontious

Lieutenant Quention Curtis is the 2021 Firefighter Hero and a member of the Chicago Fire Department. In the summer of 2018, the 33-year veteran firefighter, founded the Black Fire Brigade. He established the organization in response to inner city crime, which impedes the future of young people in our city and disproportionately affects Black communities. 

“The Black Fire Brigade was built around getting young people off the streets,” said Quention.  “That’s why our motto became: ‘If you teach a kid to save a life, they’ll be less likely to take a life.’”

The Black Fire Brigade provides 90 to120 days of training to youth to show them they can have a career as a firefighter, emergency medical technician, or paramedic. The organization also provides assistance with tuition for young individuals receiving training in these fields.

The training is paid for through donations. After completing the program, the Black Fire Brigade continues to mentor the new first responders.

As of 2020, more than 250 members have successfully graduated from the program, including 60 single moms, and three homeless students.

Written by Communications and Marketing Intern, Matthew Pontious

Joshua Hoyt is the 2021 Global Citizenship Hero. Both in Chicago and nationally, Joshua is a known advocate for immigrant and refugee rights. His community activism was sparked by his experience while studying abroad in Barcelona in the ‘70s. He saw how hundreds of thousands of people turned to the streets to demand freedom and democracy after the death of Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco. He learned about community organizing in Humboldt Park shortly after an uprising in 1977. Despite the physical devastation, poverty, and crime overtaking the neighborhood, Joshua saw the power in bringing people together to create and demand better.

After 9/11, Joshua moved from ground level organizing into the public policy arena, becoming the Executive Director of the Illinois Coalition of Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR). On the national stage, Joshua became the founding director of the National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA), a coalition of 37 organizations, working on immigrant and social justice issues. Over the past six years, NPNA has helped 5.3 million immigrants become citizens and registered them to vote.

Throughout his long career, Joshua has worked to enable the voices of many, including the undocumented immigrant population, and has fought for access to healthcare, education, and for a path to legal status.

“There are all kinds of things that I have helped to organize over the course of 45 years, but it always starts with getting people to stand up and push back,” says Joshua.

Written by Communications & Marketing Volunteer, Virginia Hopley

A group of nurses at Northwestern Memorial Hospital affectionately known as the “Old Dolls” are being recognized with the 2021 Red Cross Healthcare Heroes award.

This team of dedicated nurses have been working together in the medical Intensive Care Units of Northwestern Memorial since the mid 1980s. At the time, they were in their 20’s and 30’s and were just beginning their nursing careers. A male nurse co-worker affectionately gave the team the “Old Dolls” nickname, referring to their skilled and attentive nature, and it stuck. The nurses embraced the name and are proud to own it, even becoming minor celebrities at the hospital.

Today, about eight nurses are part of the “Old Dolls” team in the ICU’s, and together they have more than 300 years of nursing experience. The team includes: Raquel “Rocky” Collanto (35 years), Andrea Baer (36 years), Valerie Gongaware (39 years), Cindy Pascalo (39 years), Linda Michna (40 years), Kathleen Hoke (39 years), Peach Donnan (43 years), and Susan O’Connell (40 years).

In March of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic crisis happened, this female team of skilled nurses did not hesitate to remain in the ICU’s and serve on the frontlines. The Dolls were given the choice to transfer to other departments early on, but they all chose to remain in the ICU, with several working directly with the most serious COVID-19 patients.

“Despite the risks of our age, during the COVID crisis, we all decided to stay in the ICU. Because we knew we were protected and safe and we had our camaraderie.…we chose to stay to be a part of it. I think our friendship absolutely helped us get through this crisis,” said Andrea Baer.

The current pandemic is not the first health crisis these nurses have experienced. In the 1980s, they worked through the onset of the HIV/AIDS crisis.

Deep friendships have developed between the ladies, and they have shared decades and milestones together, both at work and outside of work. They train newer ICU nurses. Truly, they are symbols of hope for so many, which is why for the “Old Dolls,” nursing is more than a profession, it’s a calling.

Written by Communications and Marketing Volunteer, Virginia Hopley

Officer Marseilla Collins is being recognized with the 2021 Law Enforcement Hero Award. In August 2020, Marseilla Collins found herself at the scene of a mass shooting on her seventh day of duty as a Chicago Police Officer. She was still in her probationary period when she responded to a shots fired call in the early afternoon at a restaurant on Chicago’s South Side.

Upon arriving to the scene with her field training officer, Collins saw multiple people with severe gunshot wounds and knew she had to stay calm while addressing the situation.

“Being so new and taking on the situation was very new to me. I went through a lot of emotions, but one thing I knew was to do my job that I signed up for. I knew that this is what I [needed] to do. I was [really]calm. I didn’t freeze. I just went in and did what I had to do,” Officer Collins said.

After noticing one man had succumbed to his wounds, she immediately checked on the next closest victim. The woman had been shot in the foot and Officer Collins quickly went to her vehicle to retrieve her first aid kit. She applied combat gauze and a pressure dressing to the gunshot wound to reduce the bleeding.

By the time she had treated the woman’s wound, more officers arrived and began assisting the other victims. Officer Collins’ training was put to the test that day. Her ability to react quickly and professionally helped stabilize multiple victims of a mass shooting and get them transported safely to a hospital.

She has now been with the Chicago Police Department for more than 16 months and strives to maintain a strong and supportive image in the community.

Communications and Marketing Intern, Matthew Pontious

Kyla Davis is receiving the Lifesaving Rescue Award. After finishing her night shift as a hospital operator at Glenbrook Hospital, Kyla headed to Arlington Heights to visit a friend. However, the morning didn’t go as plan. When she arrived and got out of her car, she heard the sound of escalating voices. Kyla looked around and heard a woman screaming for help as a man put a knife to the woman’s neck.

“It was obvious she was in danger,” Kyla said. “She was afraid for her life.”

Hearing the woman cry for help, Kyla immediately made her presence known by yelling at the man to stop. She walked toward the situation but stopped when he flashed a knife. Kyla realized her own life was in danger, so she got back into her car and dialed 911.

She gave the 911 operator a description of the armed man and noticed he was forcing the woman into his SUV. The woman made an escape and darted toward Kyla’s car with the man quickly following from behind. Kyla immediately unlocked the door, allowing  the woman to get in, and quickly drove off before the man could get inside.

“I didn’t think twice,” Kyla said. “When the woman got into my car and I was racing through traffic, I went from being someone who saw something and called the police, to now being in the situation. Now I was in danger, as well.”

The man had jumped into his own vehicle and started chasing the two women. Kyla was on the phone with the 911 operator who was directing her to the Arlington Heights Police Department. The police were able to catch up to Kyla’s car as she headed toward the police station.

Arlington Heights Police called Kyla days later and awarded her with the Chief’s Meritorious Service Award.

Written by Communications and Marketing Intern, Matthew Pontious

Akbar Arsiwala is the 2021 Military Hero. Akbar, a U.S. Navy Veteran and coordinator at the Travis Manion Foundation, learned that the Jesse Brown VA Food Pantry was closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and decided that something should be done.  Akbar and his group of volunteers “made it [their] mission to find a way to succeed,” he recalled.  Akbar proceeded to volunteer at a food distribution event to learn more about the process of establishing a replacement for the food pantry.

“I asked representatives if they’d be willing to sit down and answer some questions. I started learning what I needed to do [to help with food for veterans in need] and quickly realized that we needed volunteers. We needed a venue. We needed food and safety protocols for COVID,” said Akbar.

He and his team were able to secure a venue, solicit food donations from across the Midwest, and obtain PPE that was donated by a physician, who also gave his time to take temperatures and monitor for COVID-19 symptoms. During the first food drive, Akbar and volunteers, mostly veterans from the Chicago area, helped 200 families.

However, he soon realized that they needed funding to continue.  A grant was obtained from the McCormick Foundation, and the program was able to remain open.

“That enabled us to keep our doors open each month and distribute food. And the beauty of the food pantry was every month, I’d get a call from somebody else saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got, you know, 40 cases of water,’” explained Akbar.

Akbar said that he is so proud to see how the veterans have taken ownership of the food drive. By the end of the summer, they were distributing an average of 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of food a month.

Written by Communications and Marketing Intern, Matthew Pontious

Tanya Lozano is receiving the 2021 Red Cross Social Justice Impact Hero Award. She is a Chicago-native activist based in the Pilsen area who campaigns for local social justice issues, as well as some of the national struggles for Latino rights.

Social activism runs in Tanya’s blood. Her uncle was Chicago-based activist Rudy Lozano, who helped organize minority race unity in the election of Chicago’s first African American mayor, Harold Washington. Additionally, Tanya’s mother, Emma Lozano, is also a well-known community activist in Chicago.

“I never got to meet my uncle Rudy Lozano because he was assassinated in ’83,” said Tanya. “I think a lot of the passion that I have behind my work comes from the responsibility I feel to continue his work because his life was taken unjustly. My parents are such a beautiful reflection of just our whole family and everything that our family has done.”

Tanya has always enjoyed fitness, but she realized that it was hard for people in her community to promote and participate in healthy habits because of a lack of money and infrastructure.

She made the decision to pour her passion for health and physical fitness into founding the non-profit organization, Healthy Hood Chicago. The organization, which is based in Pilsen, uses wellness education to combat the life expectancy gap for underprivileged Chicagoans.

The program started in 2014, when Tanya began teaching Zumba classes in her parents’ church. The class costs one dollar and it became popular, with about 85 women attending three times a week. It was the first time a program like this was available in her community and she realized there was clearly a desire for these activities.

“It made people realize that the power is within ourselves, that the power is in our community,” stated Tanya.

Today, the Healthy Hood organization provides free mental health services and nutrition workshops to the community. Tanya wants her community to know how important it is to address the underlying issues of good health, by not separating mental health or preventative care from health care.

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, it hit the Pilsen community hard. After seeing the statistics on COVID deaths, and how it was affecting Black and Brown communities at much higher rates, she knew she needed to start fighting for resources.

In April 2020, Tanya organized a spinoff of her non-profit Healthy Hood Chicago, called We Got Us. We Got Us is a collective of community groups dedicated to addressing immediate needs, such as food and masks. As of early October, over 1,000 volunteers have fed about 10,000 families biweekly and expanded services to include a neighborhood pantry, grocery, and hot meal delivery, in addition to establishing COVID-19 testing sites and providing distribution of protective personal equipment (PPE) on the South and West Sides.

Written by Communications and Marketing Intern, Doreen Fosco

Students from Leadership Village Academy are being recognized with the 2021 Youth Hero Award. In 2017, the 5th grade class at Village Leadership Academy in Chicago was challenged by their teachers to come up with a grass roots campaign to make a change in their community.

“Part of our social justice curriculum at Village Leadership Academy includes a class called Grassroots Campaigns,” says Village Leadership Academy Principal Dayo Harris. “Every homeroom class has to come to a consensus around a social justice issue that they would like to address in their communities.”

The class chose their project and became determined to rename a park in the North Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago. The 151-year-old park was originally named after Stephen A. Douglas.  He was a pre-American Civil War U.S. senator whose wife owned a Mississippi slave plantation and advocated for the legality of slavery to be decided on a state-by-state level. The students began the ‘Change the Name’ campaign to do just that.  They wanted to, instead,  honor Mr. Frederick Douglass, a renowned abolitionist and activist, and his wife, Anna.

This project would prove to be no easy feat, taking several years and several classes of students to do the work. Zahir Mbengue and Raniya Thomas are 8th graders at Village Leadership Academy, and are representatives of the class that picked up where the first 5th grade class started.

“The name change was so important to me because I live in North Lawndale,” Raniya said.

“Negligence is not something that just is on accident,” stated Zahir. “People actually thoroughly knew that they were putting a park named after a slave holder in a predominantly black neighborhood.”

Zahir and Raniya’s class needed to get community support to change the name of the park. They started with train takeovers.

“We would go from school and go to the train station with flyers,” Zahir said. “We sometimes would actually get on the train with our teacher to pass out flyers and introduce ourselves. I want to say about 3,000 plus signatures on our petition came from train takeovers.”

After the train takeovers, they started canvassing North Lawndale to get 2,000 more signatures from people who lived in the neighborhood of the park.

Once the class received the signatures they needed, they went to the Chicago Park District to make the change happen. After years of hard work and perseverance, the Village Leadership Academy students officially changed the name of the park!

“I feel like it’s taught everyone who was in this campaign how to use their voice better because at one point everybody was a shy little kid who didn’t want to come out of their shell,” Raniya stated. “It’s shown you that you can use your voice for good and for other possibilities.” 

Written by Communications and Marketing Intern, Doreen Fosco

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