Chicago, as we all know, is known as the City of Big Shoulders, composed of people who lifted us up out of the ashes after the Chicago Fire, people like well-known architects Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, who ushered in the era of steel-supported skyscrapers, or Daniel Burnham, an urban planner responsible for the World's Columbian Exposition. All big thinkers and doers, but, what about our lesser known heroes? They have always been among us, quietly flying under the radar, making a difference in the lives of others—maybe not with such a big splash but, for those they're helping, they appear as tidal waves of support.
Take Mona Purdy for example. Her life drastically changed in April of 1999 when she participated in a half marathon in Guatemala. Along the route, as little children cheered on the runners, she couldn't help but notice the hot tar they had applied to the soles of their feet. They had no shoes to wear so they did this to protect their feet in the only way they knew how. "The images of their feet still haunt me today," she said. Coincidentally (or fate perhaps), on her flight home, she was seated next to an orthopedic surgeon who had also been visiting and volunteering in the region." He said, "If the children had shoes to wear, I wouldn't need to perform as many amputations of children's infected limbs." When Mona returned home, she had realized her mission. She visited neighborhood schools asking families to donate children's shoes. She then organized a shipment out of her garage that she took to an orphanage in Guatemala--a trip that changed her life. From this first life-saving mission, her nonprofit Share Your Soles was born and, to date, has distributed millions of gently worn/new shoes throughout the world, targeting desperately impoverished areas in the United States, Central America, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and Africa. She said, "I used to think that shoes made lives easier and kinder, but they also save lives...In most Catholic schools in Central America, students are not permitted to go to school unless they have black school shoes. Shoes really do make such a difference." Mona is doing her part to change the world, one pair of shoes at a time. Her latest need? Funds to send warm winter boots (already collected) to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. (shareyoursoles.org)
Chef Gloria Hafer likes to say she never left the neighborhood. She's a lifelong teacher who, for years, taught physical education by day and cooking at night to kids who came from homes with income at the poverty level or below. Eventually, these cooking classes caught the eye of the late former First Lady Maggie Daley who asked if she would consider being an instructor for her then newly formed After School Matters, a nonprofit that provides life-changing after-school and summer program opportunities. Fast forward 25 years and Gloria is still at the helm of the After School Matters (ASM) Culinary Arts program as its much loved director. This ASM program provides a safe environment for Chicago teens to learn hands-on cooking techniques, budget management, etiquette and life skills. And she still teaches what she calls "survival cooking" in the same neighborhood where she grew up, on the Southeast Side. "I want kids to be able to go home, open the fridge and find something that they can make to eat," she said. "They don't have to be a chef, but every skill I teach them, they can use in the world, cooperation, team work, reading and following directions." Today, she runs 4 programs with about 100 kids per day participating. ASM gives her a budget but, as food costs soar, she still seeks outside donations since she never wants to turn a child away. This summer, over 2,000 kids applied for 200 available positions so there is clearly a need. Recently, she scored a partnership with Kellogg’s that will offer more great opportunities for her beloved kids who will continue to thrive because of her belief in them and unending support. She said, "The students in my program are inner city kids who don't have money, but want to be culinarians. These are kids who grow up going through metal detectors just to go to school." (afterschoolmatters.org)
Through tragedy, Jackelyn Kastanis found the inspiration for her nonprofit, Simply From the Heart. She had been visiting her best friend, Brooke Bolley, in the hospital for a year, watching as she slowly succumbed to esophageal cancer. During their time together, she witnessed first-hand how someone could be stripped of normalcy. Brooke had been a vibrant woman, a hairdresser, who loved getting dressed up and doing girly things. Jackelyn began pampering her the way she had always pampered others and, for just a little while, she saw her friend's spirit change. Armed with the knowledge that simple treatments like this can relieve the day-to-day pain of being sick, she founded Simply From the Heart in her friend's honor. The charity now provides free in-hospital personal care services (hair styling, make up applications, manicures, facials and massages) across four states to those living with a terminal or life-threatening illness. Recently, through support from the Hinsdale Junior Women's Club, the nonprofit was able to launch the Mobile Glam Van Restoration Project. The Glam Van is a touring 1958 pink Ford that visits local hospitals to offer pampering services. "Providing makeovers, self-care treatments and a glam box filled with over 30 beauty products will help showcase their personality, but the human connection is what will boost and ignite their innermost confidence," she said. (simplyfromtheheart.org)