JoAnn McKire-Avery, a program manager at Family Focus, in March celebrated 40 years supporting Evanston youth through her work at Family Focus.
She is known as Ms. JoAnn and beloved by community members, so much so that the City Council unanimously voted to rename a portion of Simpson Street between Darrow and Dewey avenues in her honor as JoAnn Avery Way.
“I was just floored with it, and I’m so honored by the recognition,” Avery said in a July interview with the RoundTable. “One of the ladies today said, ‘You [get to] receive your flowers now.’ It was really nice to hear that people felt that way about me.”
Growing up on the South Side of Chicago with three siblings and a single mom on welfare, Avery knew from a young age that she wanted to spend her life helping others.
“The social workers that came to visit my mom – little did they know – really influenced me. I wanted to be in the field of helping someone, but not in the way they were,” Avery said. “They would make my mom feel less than, and, as a young person, I didn’t like that. So, I was determined to go into a field to help people [because] what my mom went through made a big difference in who I am today.”
And help people Avery did.
After graduating from Kendall College in 1980 with a bachelor’s degree in community development, Avery started her career as a youth worker at Y.O.U., formerly Youth Organizations Umbrella, now Youth and Opportunity United.
Within two years Avery realized Family Focus was her calling.
“I just needed to work with African American youth, and I really wanted that because the youth that were not of color didn’t need my help. I didn’t feel like they needed me, and I was new to Evanston. So, even though I went to Kendall College, I’m like, ‘Where is the African American side of Evanston?’ I had no idea until Family Focus,” Avery said.
Yet, when Family Focus first opened its doors in 1976, the storefront on Church Street and Dodge Avenue served primarily as a drop-in center for young parents.
“Back then, it was all about teen pregnancy. The rates were high and everything. But then I thought, ‘What about preventing the new teens, that are gonna be teenagers, from being pregnant? We have to give them services that will prevent that,’” Avery said. “That’s how we got to where the kids are now. We really should have coined it, because nobody was doing prevention, but we didn’t think that far in advance.”
But Avery did not stop at prevention. Over the past four decades Avery has implemented a number of programs aimed at further enriching the lives of Black and brown youth in Evanston.
“I was in charge of the prevention program and I’ve done girls programming. One is DOVS, which is Determined, Outstanding, Victorious Sisters, and I still talk to them today. They were fifth-graders, and now they’re 27 and 28 years old and still contact me. And when they do the street-naming, they will be a part of that,” Avery said.
“So many kids I work with, they’re doing so great. They’re doctors, lawyers, they’re business people. They’ve got masters [degrees], they’ve got Ph.D.s,” Avery noted.
“We just had a benefit, where one of my youth, who was once in my program, came in as a speaker. He came back. When I call on my youth for support, I see the fruits of my labor. For instance, he learned how to play the piano because I got someone to come in and teach our kids how to play, and he’s still doing that; he got into Berklee [College of Music] on a scholarship.”
One thing is clear from talking with Avery: She is in this for the long haul.
“Those are my kids that I helped, and I didn’t birth them. But I helped them along the way, and they don’t forget that. I enjoy seeing that,” Avery said. “I enjoy when kids come back and say how I made a difference. I can’t wait till the street name because all of them made me who I am today.”
“I wouldn’t go anywhere else. This is home.”
The date for naming JoAnn Avery Way has not yet been announced.