Judy Carmack Bross
Founded just four years after the Civil War, this abiding agency has been keeping its promises to at risk children and seeking new solutions to powerful challenges for the past 150 years. The Bright Promises Foundation has earned its name, and will celebrate its birthday October 15th at the Cultural Center not only honoring some of Chicago’s most responsive leaders—Judy Block, Peggy and Paul Bodine, and Dr Dorene Wiese—but also providing grants to five organizations addressing new needs on the horizon.
As Peggy Bodine, who, along with husband Paul, receives the President’s Award for outstanding volunteer leadership, said: “It is inspiring to see an organization that has always stayed current and has always been aware that they needed to take a fresh look at things.”
Requests went out to a wide public segment to nominate the recipient of the Champion for Children Award, presented annually by Bright Promises to an individual or organization that has shown exceptional dedication to at-risk children. It is no surprise that children’s activist and advocate Judy Block will receive the award.
Block told us recently:
“Our children come in all shapes and sizes and with so many needs that society often overlooks. My hope has always been that all children be connected to a permanent family where they will be lovingly cared for, be it a lasting foster home, adoption or with their own family which has become less troubled.”
Dr. Dorene Wiese will be given the Lifetime Achievement Award for 50 years of advocating for Native American families in Chicago, helping them reach the educational goals they need to thrive. She serves as artistic director for the Black Hawk Performance Company that encourages Native youth to learn Native American music and dance in Chicago.
Katherine Dreher Korey, Bright Promises Director of Development and Marketing, told us:
“Dr. Wiese has fought for Native children when the need wasn’t recognized by others. We are proud to be working side by side with her in this area now.”
“It is fitting that both Judy Block and Dr. Wiese have had over 50 years of leading organizations helping at risk children.”
Korey described the agency’s earliest days:
“At that time there were no child labor laws. Children and animals were considered in the same class of society and state leaders created us as the Illinois Humane Society to take care of the vulnerable and to begin to answer the question of what it means to be humane. There are now specific organizations that care for animals. Our focus is on meeting the emerging needs of youngsters who have experienced childhood trauma.
“We are proud leaders and funders who find what no one is talking about currently and should be. Bright Promises has partnered with other agencies—over 250 in the past 10 years– doing cutting- edge research and outstanding work. We have had 80 plus programs which have benefitted over 10,000 children, including those who are immigrants, refugees or homeless.”
As a key part of the 150th anniversary, Bright Promises hosted a youth fair last spring called Elevating Youth Voices. Youth groups from all over the city came together to meet and share the work they were doing with the audience and each other. Each group sent a troupe on stage to speak their truth.
Peggy Bodine described the event:
“There was uncertainty on the faces of some of the young performers as they mounted the stage. Beyond stage fright, many worried that speaking their truth would offend our audience – it may not be what they want to hear. As the program began, each troupe communicated its truth in its own unique, compelling way. They were forthright, unfiltered, and impactful, offering practical solutions. The audience erupted with applause. The performers’ faces quickly changed to enthusiasm – not only did they feel they had been heard, but also helped to craft solutions they know would work in their community.
“The enthusiasm was infectious. It was so helpful for us to learn what they were experiencing through their own eyes, listen to their solutions in their own words, and appreciate how different these were from what we had expected. We cheered and learned a lot.”
We asked Korey to give us an example on an important need seen on the horizon that Bright Promises is currently addressing:
“Illinois is one of two states in the country which focuses in schools on social and emotional learning—not academics but on those skills which one needs for life and work. There are opportunities for this learning in various community programs as well. But what about in the home where parents may be very stressed and the child is experiencing an adverse childhood, possibly suffering abuse and neglect or is traumatized by watching parents fighting all the time? This experience goes deep into a child’s DNA, and keeps he or she from thriving. This is key to what we are working on now.”
Nancy Nolden Snyder, Francia Harrington, Vern Broders, and Mark Murray chair the 150th Anniversary Awards event.
Snyder, a board member, told us:
“We are so excited to present $50,000 in special grants as the culmination of a year-long celebration of Bright Promises’ 150th Anniversary. The five recipient organizations were selected based on their proposals, which included videos created by youth, their presentation at the Elevating Youth Voices Fair last June, and input from volunteers, directors and staff. I can’t wait to see their presentations recreated at the fall Awards event.”
Korey explained that Peggy and Paul Bodine have been key to the new growth of the organization in recent years and most deserving winners of the President’s Award:
“During Paul’s Presidency he re-imagined the organization and then transformed it, getting more volunteers involved and re-focusing the funding.
“The Bodines are part of a new Legacy Council which includes community leaders such as Gigi Pritzker, Prue Beidler, Francia Harrington and Vern Broders.”
We asked Peggy and Paul to tell us more about their involvement:
What impresses you most about its staying power and the fact that they are continually looking for the new need, what hasn’t been recognized yet as a great challenge to the community?
“Bright Promises has always had a knack for bringing together incredibly talented and committed civic leaders and staff who listen carefully to experts in the community, do the research, partner broadly, and constantly re-adjust the organization’s focus to ensure its relevance, impact, leveraged use of resources, and sustainability. Its endowment covers its operating costs, enabling every dollar we donate to go directly to helping the kids.”
You are being honored as volunteers for Bright Promises I believe. What is it like to volunteer for the organization, how does it work with volunteers and what are some of the ways that volunteers learn?
“Like Classic Chicago’s readership, we are avid volunteers committed to giving back to the community. Bright Promises is a dynamic organization to volunteer with; change is built into its DNA. Our volunteers are of all ages and disciplines, sharing the benefit of their experiences as they work hands-on elbow-to-elbow with some of the brightest minds in the industry.”
Are there any specific stories that really warm your heart or come to mind fondly about working with kids who are helped by Bright Promises?
“Bright Promises established a 150th anniversary committee of volunteers to design how we would celebrate its years of service and renew its commitment to the next 150. The committee thought through the ways we could recognize the achievement, then realized, it was all about the kids! We were all volunteering to help the kids and wanted it to be about them. We wanted to hear from them, directly, have them explain to us what their world is like and how we can best help. Elevating Youth Voices emerged.”
How do you see the organization going forward in the next 150 years?
“Bright Promises is a timeless organization. We have no idea what the world will be like in 20 years let alone 150. We do know that no matter the challenge of the day, Bright Promises will be on it, bringing experts and partner agencies together, engaging public attention, and acting as a catalyst to mobilize Chicago’s resources around the issue.”
Korey summed it up:
“We think of ourselves as connectors, not just offering to our volunteers individual opportunities but to be part of the bigger picture, to start a ripple effect and be part of moving the needle to a better place.”
Still trailblazing after 150 years!