Evanston Organizes: Family Focus provides long-standing sense of community in 5th Ward
April 25, 2019
This story is part of a series of profiles of activist and community groups across Evanston.
On any given day after school, children shuffle from program to program at Evanston Family Focus. Located at 2010 Dewey Ave., the center serves more than 200 families in the community through family-oriented programming.
This center and its resources are vital to the Evanston community, said Ald. Robin Rue Simmons (5th), who attended Family Focus programming herself when she was growing up.
“We have thousands of Family Focus alumni, folks that went through programming at Family Focus,” Rue Simmons said. “What it has done to save lives, to transform lives, to empower families is invaluable.”
Since opening in Evanston in 1976, Family Focus has offered classes, resources and a safe place for families in need of assistance, with an overarching goal of promoting early childhood development. Primarily serving 5th Ward residents, the non-profit is central to the community, both for the support it provides and the community it fosters. The organization has since expanded to six other centers across the Chicago area.
Historic building brings ‘sense of community’
Before Family Focus occupied the Dewey Avenue building, the property housed the Foster School, the segregation-era black school in Evanston. The school closed in 1967 as a part of the city’s desegregation plan. Following the closure, the building temporarily housed the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Literary and Fine Arts School before it was moved to its current location at 2424 Lake St. The 5th Ward has not had a community school since.
Colette Allen, the center’s director, said Family Focus provides students with a “safe space” to go to after school, a need for the community given that it lacks a community school.
“All of our kids from this Ward are bussed out of here, so that sense of community that a school often brings is missing here,” Allen said. “And that’s what Family Focus provides, that sense of community.”
‘Holistic’ family support
The programming Family Focus offers equips the entire family unit to strengthen childhood development, Allen said.
“All the programs are centered around the family,” Allen said. “Not just the children, and not just the parents, but it takes a holistic approach to the family. We support them from zero to 80.”
Family Focus’s early childhood programming supports families with children from birth until they are 3 years old. It helps parents prepare their children for school through workshops and bi-monthly home visits, which teach parents to read and play with their children.
Once children reach third grade, they can attend the after-school programming. Allen said about 60 students, split into third- through fifth-graders and sixth- through eighth-graders, come to Family Focus every day after school for homework support and enrichment activities. Many activities emphasize STEM learning, she said.
“We don’t have engineers and technicians and scientists, especially from the African American and Latino communities,” Allen said. “This is an opportunity to expose kids to things that they don’t normally get exposed to.”
The center also has a Family Advocacy Center for families with children at risk of being placed into the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services system. Funded by the DCFS, Family Advocacy Center staff coordinate supervised visits and work with social workers and the court system, ultimately aiming to reunite parents with their children and keep families together, Allen said.
Programming supports grandparents responsible for raising their grandchildren as well. A support group meets once a month to participate in educational and social activities. These grandparents call themselves the “second-chance group,” Allen said.
“Some of them feel like they didn’t do such a good job of raising their own children and that they’ve been given a second chance, now that they have custody of their grandchildren,” Allen said.
Family Focus also operates a food pantry and clothing closet to provide resources to the community. The food pantry is open every Saturday, and the clothing closet every other Saturday. Allen said the pantry is open to whoever needs resources, and Family Focus doesn’t ask questions about whether people qualify to receive food and clothing.
Spirit of collaboration
Family Focus is not alone in the Dewey Avenue property; 18 other social service agencies rent space in the building, including Evanston Cradle to Career, McGaw YMCA Head Start and the Infant Welfare Society of Evanston.
The different organizations collaborate with one another to meet an array of needs families might have, Allen said.
“That’s the great thing of being in a building where we have partner organizations: We do a lot of cross-referrals between agencies,” Allen said. “If somebody in the Head Start program has an older sibling that needs after-school care, they will refer them to us.”
Family Focus, Inc., the organization’s corporate entity, currently owns the building, but the building is being sold. Family Focus CEO and President Merri Ex said the organization hopes to sell to someone intending to keep the building as a community center, where Family Focus would remain as a tenant.
A group of community members called Foster Center Our Place have been working to raise funds to purchase the building. Evanston resident Rose Johnson, who leads the group, said having all the different social service agencies housed in the Family Focus building is “invaluable”.
“There’s a lot that happens for kids, especially the kids in the 5th Ward, because of Family Focus and the other not-for-profits that are housed in that building,” Johnson said. “And I would like to see that continue. Our kids deserve as much as we can do for them.”