Everything Evanston: 5th Ward resident talks waste transfer station, Books & Breakfast helps youth

Julia Esparza, Kalen Luciano, Amy Coval, and Heena Srivastava

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KALEN LUCIANO: From the Daily Northwestern, I’m Kalen Luciano. Welcome to another episode of “Everything Evanston”

CINDY LEVITT: The first night I slept in my new townhouse, I was woken up by a rumbling, and I thought that there was an earthquake. I come to find out it was just the trucks rolling into the waste transfer station. My bedroom was shaking, so I didn’t realize that was going to be happening, and I also didn’t know how noisy and smelly it was going to be.

KALEN LUCIANO: Cindy Levitt moved to Church Street Village from northwest Evanston in 2008. On the blueprint, the home had everything she needed, but on the map, this place looks very different.

LEVITT: We’re at Church Street Village. It’s a townhome community right across from Mason Park and just two blocks east of the high school. And it happens to be situated right next to a waste transfer station.

LUCIANO: A waste transfer station is a facility where trucks dump trash to be stored until a larger truck comes to pick it up and bring it to a landfill. The only one located in Evanston is in the 5th Ward, which has the highest concentration of black people in Evanston. The station first started as a small family-owned business before Veolia, an international waste disposal company, took over. Now, another waste disposal company, Advanced Disposal, owns the facility. For Cindy, the waste transfer station takes up her daily life.

LEVITT: I moved here to a townhouse, so I could still garden because that was the one thing I wasn’t willing to give up. I do have a garden in the back. But sometimes the smell is so awful from the transfer station that I can’t even stay in my own backyard and enjoy it. Oftentimes, it just makes it really unpleasant to get closer to home when you’re coming from another part of Evanston where the air smells fresher. It’s just a kind of a nasty reminder that I can’t really control.

LUCIANO: Even in the comfort of her home, she can’t escape the impacts of the waste transfer station.

LEVITT: Contractors come and dump. Sometimes, you can feel the vibrations. The trucks use a backup beeper as a safety system, and you will hear the ‘beep, beep, beep’ constantly as well as just the smell and the chemical masking agent. Sometimes, that will cause me to have an allergic reaction from the smell.

LUCIANO: Current laws prohibit a waste transfer station from being so close to homes, but this station was grandfathered in, so it is exempt from that law. Despite this, Cindy’s instincts as a community organizer pushed her to try to do something about it.

LEVITT: We had some protests. It was right across the street, right across from the transfer station. Kids were out and we wore masks.

LEVITT AT PROTEST: So we’ve got a great crowd here. We have our police officers. We have runners. We have the Veolia closed down. Trucks have been trying to get in here, and they can’t.

LEVITT: And so we just wanted to bring awareness to the larger community.

LUCIANO: The movement grew, leading to a series of court battles, including one where Veolia sued Evanston in 2011 for issuing a fee of two dollars per ton of waste. Evanston settled the suit and retained $1.26 million of the fees the city collected. All of these legal battles and activism took a toll on Cindy.

LEVITT: During this lawsuit period, there was a time when those of us that were active were subpoenaed to turn over materials. It’s very frustrating because I feel like I’ve tried with other people through the years to make some changes, and some of the changes have made our lives a little bit easier. But we still don’t know, what is the health impact on us? What is the environmental impact on the kids that are growing up here? I have more allergic reactions now than I used to. Can I tie that to what’s going on at the transfer station? I’m not really sure. One of the roles of a community organizer is not to do everything him or herself, but try to allow other people to take leadership roles, and so right now, I’m letting that happen.

LUCIANO: In May, the city started an air quality study around the Church Street waste transfer station. Though the fight for change has had its highs and lows, Cindy has hope this study will demonstrate the harm the station has caused.

LEVITT: I’m hopeful. I’m optimistic. I’m not giving up. I sometimes get discouraged, but I feel like ultimately, with the right amount of data and research and momentum, maybe people in my community who are a little bit more complacent, once they see some of the data, might be reactivated. And maybe they will feel like this is something worth fighting for.

AMY COVAL: At the end of each episode, we’ll finish with a slice of life focused on Evanston. In this installment, a program providing elementary schoolers with free breakfast and homework help.

COVAL: It is eight o’clock in the morning, and Dewey Elementary School’s multipurpose room is packed with 45 students munching on bananas and finishing math worksheets. They sit in pods with an adult volunteer, who helps them with math or coloring books. Tania Margonza mulls around, throwing away string cheese wrappers and keeping students on task.

TANIA MARGONZA: We have a roster of 60 kids that can come. Not all of them come every day. Usually we are in the high-30s, mid-40s range.

COVAL: Margonza is the Dewey Elementary School site director for Books & Breakfast, alongside assistant site director Keziah Brackett. The program provides Evanston elementary schoolers with free breakfast and homework help on weekday mornings. Since its creation over 30 years ago, the program is now an independent nonprofit run by executive director Kimberly Hammock. It operates in four elementary schools throughout Evanston.

MARGONZA: The majority of them have been recommended to be here because they are lower in math or reading comprehension. Once they are in, they are in for their Dewey career.

COVAL: The students eat breakfast, do brain work, and if their adult gives them the green light, they play games. For brothers Natthen and Christopher, that is the best part of the day. Christopher is in third-grade and Natthen is in fifth-grade.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Do you know what you want to be when you grow up?

NATTHEN: Geologist, glacier-ologist, chef, and artist.

CHRISTOPHER: An artist.

NATTHEN: Yesterday our dog pooped on the bed. Luckily, my mom and dad, they did not get poop on their bed.

SRIVASTAVA: What is your dog’s name?

BOTH: Giggles.

COVAL: Margonza makes sure to keep families involved in the kids’ learning process.

MARGONZA: We do host multiple events during the school-year, like a big family breakfast on a Saturday morning, where we have gotten up to 100 people to show up for a celebration of the kids and their efforts, and we keep it positive so that parents continue coming and the kids continue coming. But also to build that bond between the parent and the student. Like, ‘my child is doing great.’ They might not get the good news as much as they might get what they’re not doing or the bad news. So, we try to fill that with, ‘they’re awesome at this, they’re awesome at that, they rocked their homework.’ We call them all the time, and we’re like, ‘your child had a really great day.’

COVAL: Margonza applauds fourth-graders Brenda and Chace for finishing their homework. They play a brain-game called Kaboom instead.

BRENDA: So basically, you can play Kaboom with multiplication, subtraction, and adding. So the point is you want to get as much cards as you can, but you don’t want to get Kaboom, because if you get Kaboom and you have a pile you need to put all your cards back in.

CHACE: This is 96.

BRENDA: 108.

CHACE: 132.

BRENDA: 24.

COVAL: Although the focus of Books & Breakfast remains on the mentorship of the children, many Northwestern students are involved in the program as a way to connect to Evanston beyond the university bubble.

MARGONZA: They come at least 2-3 days a week to help. We do quarterly trainings, where we teach them about equity, we give them a tour of Evanston, we talk about social identity, have them reflect on their experiences as elementary students. We try to have a diverse group so that our kids are exposed to diverse adults. We have had people that have switched majors from whatever they are doing, engineering or whatever, to education. They like the program, and it has impacted them.

HILLES: I think it’s really special that Books & Breakfast has a connection with Northwestern because it allows current students to mentor these children, and instead of seeing adults, they are seeing people who are closer to their age, people they can aspire to be. It helps them with dreams to go to college, so that connection with Northwestern makes Books & Breakfast really special.

COVAL: Chloe Hilles, a Medill sophomore, has been a part of Books & Breakfast since last winter. She was first introduced to the program through her sorority on campus and has since consistently volunteered at local elementary schools. With this, Hilles has seen an impact on her own life.

HILLES: I think it’s important that Northwestern students get involved with Evanston because we are very isolated in our lakefront bubble and only going into downtown or staying on our campus. And there is a lot more to Evanston than these lakefront houses, which includes a lot of underprivileged and minority areas that often get overlooked by the students. So, if we have programs that help Northwestern students get involved in Evanston then I think it can really impact what we’re doing here at school.

COVAL: Hilles first began working at Books & Breakfast through her sorority here at Northwestern, and now she is a regular volunteer. She is just one of many who strive to push the agenda of Evanston students getting a morning meal and reading help. For Hilles, it is in the reading that she sees the most influence.

HILLES: So, reading is a big part of education, and if students don’t start reading at a young age, then they can really struggle with their educational development later on if they aren’t reading early, so it’s really important that they gain those skills because that’s very key to learning in general.

COVAL: The link from Books & Breakfast to Northwestern inspires young students with aspirations for higher education and a passion for learning. With the program being right in Northwestern’s backyard, Hilles says all students should participate as volunteers.

HILLES: You can volunteer for an hour any morning of the week at any of the elementary schools that Books & Breakfast works with. They should get involved because it’s an amazing program that is giving back to the community that we are living in and that should be a really important aspect of peoples’ lives.

MARGONZA: I love Evanston. And there is so much to offer for the kids and families, but a lot of families don’t know about it. So my mission, I feel like, in life, my calling is to help the families that aren’t aware of resources and making sure they have those equitable outcomes for their kids.

COVAL: As the clock nears 8:50, Margonza plays Pharrell Williams to close the program out for the day. Students rush to the front of the room, sit diligently in their assigned tables, and wait for dismissal.

MARGONZA: So, it’s not just breakfast. It’s not just homework help. It’s more that holistic start to the day. School is good. Reading is fun. And math can be fun instead of a chore. They get to play with kids that are not in their class. That are different from them. Different grades, different ages, different races. And hopefully, like I said, build community.

COVAL: Thanks for listening. I’m Amy Coval, and this is Everything Evanston. See you next time.

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