Justin Wynn Fund President Dave Bowen and honoree JoAnn Avery Photo by Heidi Randhava

The Justin Wynn Fund presented the 2020 Buddy Portugal Award to JoAnn Avery, Program Coordinator at Family Focus Evanston, at its Red Tie Soirée, held in February at the Evanston Art Center, 1717 Central St.

The annual event broke attendance and fundraising records, raising nearly $50,000 to carry out the fund’s mission to celebrate and nurture young leaders by helping them develop a deep sense of self and responsibility for improving their communities.

Ms. Avery received the award for her significant contributions to Evanston’s youth. Widely known as “Miss JoAnn,” she is a beloved figure to generations of Evanston children and their families. Growing up on Chicago’s South Side, Ms. Avery had a role model in her mother, who sacrificed to provide for her family, keep them safe and steer them to a better future. After witnessing public aid workers disrespect and humiliate her mother, Ms. Avery promised herself that one day she would make a difference in the lives of mothers and children, and that every person would be treated with respect.

Armed with her personal motto, “Education is the key to success,” Ms. Avery attended Kendall College and the Spertus Institute, where she received a B.A. and M.A. in Human Services Administration. She was initially hired by what is now Youth & Opportunity United (Y.O.U.) of Evanston, but found herself drawn to the children of Evanston’s Fifth Ward, and had befriended so many of them that she began to work for Family Focus when it was a fledgling storefront organization. The nonprofit organization offers family support, literacy and parenting programs as well as vocational, health and social programs for pre-teens, teens and teen parents, and their adult families.

Over the past 38 years Ms. Avery has developed numerous programs including Primary Prevention: teaching children life skills necessary for a positive future; the support group Grandparents Raising Grandchildren; Girls in Real Life Situations (G.I.R.L.S.), a lunch-time discussion program at E.T.H.S.; and Girls Reaffirming Ambition, Character and Education (G.R.A.C.E.), a group she formed with her sorority sisters from Delta Sigma Theta.

Now teaching a second generation of Evanston children, Ms. Avery and her exuberant, enthusiastic young students enjoy daily visits from siblings, parents and former students who were once “Miss JoAnn’s kids.”

The Justin Wynn Fund (JWF) was founded in 1987 by Michael and Marcia Wynn and other community leaders to honor the memory and legacy of the Wynns’ son, Justin, a passionate, service-minded leader who died in a swimming accident at the age of nine. JWF annually presents the Justin Wynn Award to two fourth grade students from each of Dist. 65’s 12 schools who demonstrate excellence in leadership, citizenship and sportsmanship. Award recipients, or “Wynners,” can participate in the Justin Wynn Leadership Academy from fifth through 12th grade. Programming consists of leadership development activities and opportunities to execute a wide range of community service projects.

In addition to the Justin Wynn Award and the Buddy Portugal Award, JWF annually awards the Michael Wynn Award to two E.T.H.S. seniors who are past “Wynners” and who demonstrate dedication, inspiration and compassion within the Justin Wynn Leadership Academy; the Marcia Wynn Award to an adult who is the parent of a Wynner and who has been a dedicated supporter of  JWF and the Justin Wynn Leadership Academy; and the Catherine McKnight Scholarship to two E.T.H.S. seniors who demonstrate a passion for education and community service.

Heidi Randhava is an award winning reporter who has a deep commitment to community engagement and service. She has written for the Evanston RoundTable since 2016.