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Family Focus does a lot from its base in the Fifth Ward, but the growing organization hopes to do a lot more, and millions of dollars that may be available from the city could help the social service organization expand its offerings.
At the Jan. 27 Fifth Ward meeting, held online, Dara Munson, new president and Chief Executive Officer of Family Focus, offered an update on the organization based in the former Foster School building.
Family Focus’ flagship location was founded in Evanston in 1976 by Bernice Weissbourd and Delores Holmes, later an alderman, to assist parents “seeking support.”
Today, the old school building houses services like family advocacy, home visiting, youth programming, a clothing closet, a gym, a theater, a computer lab, programs for grandparents raising grandchildren and a food pantry.
Family Focus hosts several tenants that serve the community, including the Evanston branch of the NAACP, the Infant Welfare Society, Cradle to Career and the Children’s Advocacy Center.
Family Focus merged with the Chicago Child Care Society (based in Hyde Park) in January 2021 and is celebrating one year as a merged organization by reintroducing itself to the community.
“Both Family Focus and Chicago Child Care Society have roots in early childhood development and family support. Both organizations have a history and a commitment to supporting the whole family,” Munson said. “But we’re also providing support for the entire family unit. And whatever way that family looks.”
Today Family Focus serves 10 communities throughout Northeast Illinois, including Evanston. A vast majority of participants are African American or Latino. Depending on local community needs, Munson said, the organization offers immigration or refugee services, fatherhood programs, preschool classes or services for grandparents raising grandchildren.
New programs coming
Today, Munson says that the organization’s local emphasis is on ensuring its building is maintained well, so that it can attract additional tenants to fill the 40% unutilized space. What does that mean? A “pretty significant construction project” is headed to Family Focus. Munson hinted that the gym, computer lab, and theater are three areas that need renovating. But further decisions to renovate will be community-informed, Munson said.
“I know that there are core services that the community could benefit from, but we don’t profess to know what those services are,” Munson continued. “And so we’ll continue to do community engagement to ensure that our future tenants are providing the services that the community desires to happen from that center.”
Rose Johnson, an auxiliary board chair for Family Focus, also spoke at the ward meeting. Vanessa Allen-Graves, the new center director for Family Focus, was unable to attend the meeting.
After the presentation, community leader Carlis Sutton voiced his concerns about Black males in the community.
“I’m very concerned that we should address the problem of the gap in education. So I’d like to see some programs, tutoring and mentoring, especially for Black males in this community. And there are enough of us men in fraternities willing to take this job,” Sutton said.
Holmes, who retired from Family Focus in 2002, jumped in to respond.
“Before I left, Family Focus always had mentoring programs for young males,” she said. “Boys 2 Men was one group that was really great. We have a lot of male staff. Now, I know that was back in the early 2000s. I know because of funding, a lot of those things went away.”
Holmes, who served on the City Council from 2005 to 2017, added that such programs are possible and “we all know that they’re needed,” but without funding they don’t happen.
Current Fifth Ward Council member Bobby Burns ended the discussion by stating that now the Fifth Ward does have funds for such efforts, and the goal is to put that money toward some of the ideas discussed.
Between funds from the Five-fifths TIF, Community Development Block Grant funds and $43 million in federal American Rescue Act Funds funds, the city will have more than $100 million that largely has to be spent “in the immediate area around Family Focus and Fleetwood,” Burns said.
The projected tax increment over the next 23 years from the Five-fifths TIF is roughly $83 million to $89 million, Burns told the RoundTable.
Family Focus Evanston will continue community engagement in the Fifth Ward to discover what programs and services the potential construction project will benefit, Munson said. The project will go forward in partnership with the Foster Campus STEM school concept, she said.