JoAnn McKire-Avery holds up the sign designating a stretch of Simpson Street as JoAnn Avery Way. Credit: Genie Lemieux

It was a bright, sunny day, all you had to do was look at Ms. JoAnn’s face to know that. But she wasn’t always easy to see, as she was surrounded by friends, family, colleagues, children, parents, grandparents and Evanston luminaries.

On Saturday, Aug. 27, Simpson Street between Darrow and Dewey Avenues was renamed in honor of JoAnn McKire-Avery, program manager for the After School Programs at Family Focus. The City Council in June voted unanimously for the honor.

Ms. Jo-Ann listens to speeches honoring her on her big day. Credit: Genie Lemieux

“It was a very emotional day for me,” Ms. JoAnn said, going through pictures of the event with the RoundTable. “It was surreal. I’ve been there a long time. But this, this was never, ever in my wildest dreams.”

A long time is 40 years and five months – the year after Family Focus was founded. “I’m originally from Chicago and I came here when I was in college, at Kendall College. “I started an internship at Family Focus in 1977 and I never left.”

Those who met her decades ago and those who met her this year came to stand together and celebrate the woman whose smile touched their lives, whose hug meant everything. She changed people’s lives, got them through a day, helped them become a mother, became the godmother to their child, inspired them, listened to them and believed in them.

“People always say to me, ‘You work with at-risk kids,’ and I say: ‘No, I work with ‘at-promise’ kids. All these kids have promise. I work with at-promise kids. I said that in my speech.”

There were adults who have known Ms. JoAnn since they were just toddlers. “My first group that I had, some of them just turned 42 and 43. They were there.”

“Robin Rue [Simmons], she was one of mine,” said Ms. JoAnn of the former Council member who was one of the key architects of Evanston’s Reparation program.

And some of the women in the grandmother’s group she started? “There were once teen moms and I facilitated that group too.”

Grandmothers Rock, the group that Ms. JoAnn started who meet every other Tuesday and write poetry books with the help of Beth Jacobs, was there. “They are a great bunch of women,” Ms. JoAnn said. “There are 20 of them, but look at them, they’re too young to be grandparents.”

“My professor was there!” Ms. JoAnn said. “Joan Gold, from Kendall College. She placed me at Family Focus for my internship at college and she meant so much to me. She and Dr. Muriel Smock had such an impact. They inspired me and I’ve always wanted to reconnect with them. But she was here. She came. It’s been 40 years. I saw her and I thought y’all can’t keep doing this to me and that’s when I broke down.”

“I got to hear people talk about the impact that I had had on their lives,” she said. “I keep thinking about it so much because I was able to hear it. I’m still here and I was able to hear it all.

“I’m a silent person I don’t go around saying, ‘I’ve done this’ or ‘I’ve done that’ but it made me think. And it was just awesome.”

And she laughed: “My mom says I can call myself an Evanstonian now. I love what I do and I wouldn’t change anything. If I could to do it over again, I would.” 

Susy Schultz is the editor of the Evanston Roundtable. She has been a journalist for more than 20 years, and is the former president of Public Narrative, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching journalists and...

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