By Heidi Stevens
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Columnist Heidi Stevens shares the stories of 10 people who are doing extraordinary things with their lives. They inspired her and they certainly inspired me too!
Every year this column puts me in touch with all sorts of inspiring, world-changing humans, and 2016 was no exception.
I’m profoundly grateful for the opportunity to learn their stories and share them with you, which inevitably starts another round of dialogue through your emails, letters and social media posts.
To those of you who took the time to connect this year: Thank you. And to all of you: A healthy and peaceful 2017.
Here are 10 people I met in 2016 who give me hope for the year ahead.
-Shaka Rawls took over as principal of Leo Catholic High School, a 90-year-old all-boys school on the city’s Far South Side, in August and immediately started making plans for a volunteer cleanup day. “We’ve probably got 20-year-old dust in the school,” he said. By the time the day arrived, Rawls had 150 volunteers from corporations and organizations around Chicago, plus money and cleaning products donated from Method, the Chicago Blackhawks and Nuance Solutions. “Everyone is invested in the success of these young men,” he told me after the event. “They feel believed in.”
-Caroline Boudreaux took a soul-searching trip around the globe and ended up leaving her corporate gig to launch a nonprofit that funds orphanages in India. “The ramifications of not having your parents are so vast,” she said. “If you don’t have that basic thing, this world is just going to eat you up.” The Miracle Foundation provides room and board for Indian women to serve as housemothers and provides food, clean water, health care and scholarships for the orphans. “If you take care of a mom,” Boudreaux told me, “you really do take care of the children.”
-Skyler Shrempp is the artistic director at the Viola Project, a nonprofit that brings together girls ages 10-16 and immerses them in Shakespeare as a way of teaching them to find and use their own voices. “We work with girls at a time of their lives when they stop advocating for themselves,” Shrempp said. As 13-year-old Sophie Harris told me the day I observed a class, “It’s kind of saying, ‘In your face, Shakespeare’ because his plays were originally for all boys.”
-Audrey Peterman is on a mission to make the nation’s public lands accessible, and accessed by, more people of color. She and her husband, Frank, wrote “Legacy on the Land: A Black Couple Discovers Our National Inheritance and Tells Why Every American Should Care” (Earthwise Productions), and they tour the country speaking about their travels. “We can’t save the world,” she told me. “The world saves us.”
-Eric Witherspoon hopped on the morning announcements at Evanston Township High School the morning after Donald Trump was elected and read a message that became a nationwide balm. “You attend a school where we not only respect differences, we embrace our diversity,” he told the 3,300-student school, where he serves as superintendent. His several-minute address was emailed and texted to schools and parents around the country. “This transcends politics,” he told me. “All of us, as Americans, know that’s who we really are, and it’s so important that we don’t lose sight of it.”
-Gaylon Alcaraz went from a reluctant exerciser, cursing between labored breaths, to a three-marathon running phenom, thanks to the camaraderie of Black Girls Run and some serious inner strength. She directs that same strength toward her advocacy work, which includes fighting for reproductive rights, affordable housing and more. “When you’re an activist, in some ways you’re always outraged about the world around you. Running helps me feel calm and, honestly, more grateful,” Alcaraz told me. “There are people in this world who are running for their lives. Their houses are being bombed, or they’re trying to escape from war. I’m running because I want to. When I think about that in terms of my work, even with all the things I feel outraged about, I am grateful.”
-Lily Alter, 15, turned a high school English assignment (write a mock grant proposal) into a GoFundMe campaign to purchase feminine care products for homeless girls and women. She’s raised a little more than $10,000 so far, and she partners with Breakthrough Urban Ministries in East Garfield Park and Maywood-based Housing Forward, which runs a shelter in Alter’s Oak Park church, to distribute the products. “I read once about how it’s really hard to be on your period when you’re homeless,” Alter told me. And with that, an idea, and a solution, were born.
-Ruth Evermann is a kindergarten teacher-turned-art therapist at Jose de Diego Elementary Community Academy in Wicker Park. “Their families are working at survival level,” Evermann told me. “Our kids carry an anger with them that takes your breath away.” She teaches them to channel that anger into art, and together she and the students have transformed their building into a stunning, colorful mosaic of art that greets and embraces them each school day.
-Anita Hollander performed three different roles in the Goodman Theatre’s spring production of “The Matchmaker”, her versatility is thanks, in part, to the fact that she lost a leg to cancer in her 20s. She has performed at Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center and the New York Shakespeare Festival. She’s acted in “Cats,” “Ragtime,” “Oklahoma” and more. Along the way, she advocates for greater visibility and inclusion for actors with disabilities. “We’re 20 percent of this population,” Hollander said, “and we don’t see ourselves.” She’s working to change that.
-Georgy Ann Peluchiwski is co-founder of the City Chapter of Impact 100 Chicago, an all-volunteer, all-women grant-making organization that awards $100,000 grants to local nonprofits making a difference in one of five areas, education, family, health, culture and sustainability. “Our intention is to help small to midsize nonprofits in the city with really high-quality ideas to create a big impact in the community they serve,” Peluchiwski said. The “American Idol”-style event where the grants are auditioned for and rewarded was one of my favorite events of the year and made me believe better days may truly be ahead for this city I live in and love.