Family members have always been a key component of Family Focus’s work on childhood development.

“We know that many families come to us because they have either heard from a neighbor or friend, a family member, their parish, that Family Focus can support them, can help them,” said Mariana Osoria, senior vice president of partnerships and engagement for the agency, addressing members of the city’s Social Services Committee at their Aug. 11 meeting.

Family Focus building, formerly Foster School (RoundTable photo)

“We may not be able to do it all but we can certainly guide them,” Osoria said. “So we know that we have resources and tools to support families.”

The agency is hoping to build on that work in the next project on its horizon – the rollout and administration of a welcoming center at the Family Focus building, 2010 Dewey Ave.

Osoria appeared before members of the committee at the virtual meeting, seeking backing for the agency’s potential use of $477,831 in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to build a center to serve as a welcoming place for new citizens of Evanston.

The idea of a welcoming center grew out of two round table meetings facilitated by Envisioning Equity in June and October 2021, said Sarah Flax, the city’s housing and grants manager, in a memo to the committee.

A welcoming center “could be developed based on the innovative model of the Illinois Department of Public Health’s Welcoming Center (IWC) that eliminates systematic barriers that immigrants may have in accessing services and empowers immigrant communities to succeed,” she wrote.

“There are 30 IWCs that are comprehensive service centers for the integration of immigrants and refugees in Illinois that receive operating support from [the Illinois Department of Public Health]. It needs to be determined if IDPH would provide operating support for such a center in Evanston if the City were to use ARPA to fund the upfront capital needs and start-up costs.”

City officials moved forward with the idea last December, in a report that discussed what programs to next allocate the federal ARPA funds. A welcoming center, along with mental health and child care, were identified as the top areas of support in the report. Officials provided census data supporting the need for such a program.

The data showed the city’s Hispanic population increased from 6,739 residents in 2010 to 8,778 in 2020, a 30% increase, exceeding the national growth rate of 23%. During that same period, Evanston’s total population grew by 4.9%, from 74,486 to 78,110, while the two largest racial categories, White alone and Black alone, declined by 5.5% and 6.9%, respectively, officials reported.

Spanish is the primary language of approximately 45% of Evanston residents who report they speak English less than well, and 20.7% and 19.5% of District 65 and 202 students report being Hispanic, they said.

Family Focus already serves immigrant and refugee programming in Aurora and Cicero as well as on Chicago’s northwest side, Flax noted.

“Family Focus provides immigrant families and individuals with bilingual services to provide pathways to success including assistance with citizenship process by accredited staff, DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) renewal, interpretation services, ESL and GED classes, citizenship classes, referrals to healthcare, education and employment resources, and more,” she wrote. “Family Focus has been a provider of the Illinois Welcoming Center model since 2013.”

In her presentation to the committee, Osoria pointed out that a key aspect of the proposal is creating a place “that’s safe, secure and that is welcoming.”

Some immigrants or refugees, because of their citizenship status, “are very cautious about where they go, how they access service, where they go to get support,” she explained.

They seek “a place that is welcoming, a place that as you enter you know that you are going to be welcomed there – like a warm home … a place to sit down and just know that you can lay your troubles here.”

The agency previously had received one of the biggest allocations of ARPA funds from the city. Council members last month approved the agency’s request for a $3 million allocation to renovate and upgrade their Dewey Avenue building. Some of the services already provided at the building include Early Childhood, “which is the heart and soul of the work we (Family Focus) do,” Osoria said.

“There is also family support, the youth programs, case management, grandparents raising grandchildren,” Osoria said. “So it’s really a dynamic group of programming and program services,” she said, serving between 3,500 to 5,000 individuals.

“When we open the Welcoming Center up,” she said, ‘’we will increase that amount and as we continue to develop the services and continue to identify sustainable funding for that program we will be able to build that even more as we move ahead.”

Members of the Social Service committee took no action on the proposal, which was set for discussion only. The issue would eventually have to go to the City Council, which has final authority on the allocation of ARPA funds.

If approved, Family Focus plans to begin meeting with focus groups to determine need and interest for programs in October 2022, Flax said in her memo to the committee, with hopes of opening the city’s first welcoming center by Jan. 1, 2023.

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.