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Moving Forward After Closing Hull House

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Today is a new day in Chicago. This week is the first in more than 120 years that Chicago will be without Jane Addams Hull House -- one of the preeminent social service agencies in the nation.

It's a sobering thought -- that after so much time, an agency of such size and importance can disappear. It also calls to light how important it is for each of us to support the nonprofits whose work we value.

My organization -- Heartland Alliance, a social service and anti-poverty organization in Chicago -- considers the closing of Hull House a loss of family. We were birthed out of the same era, share Jane Addams as our visionary founder, and are rooted in a similar mission of providing new opportunities to lives in need.

This is a difficult time for all of us, though and, unfortunately, Hull House isn't the only nonprofit facing trouble. The AP reports that nearly 60% of nonprofits have seen their income flatten or decrease in the last year. Heartland Alliance's own survey of local nonprofits discovered the same issue -- that nearly 50% of them had reduced hours, cut services, or laid off staff. Nearly 40% had to shutter needed programs. Food banks, shelters, after-school programs -- all find themselves pushed to do far more with far less.

To me the tragedy here isn't the closing of such an iconic organization or the resulting stress on Hull House's nonprofit peers. The tragedy is in the lives of their participants, who were given a real opportunity -- for some of them maybe the first in their lives -- to rise up and take hold of a new life only to have support systems disappear.

If my 30 years in the nonprofit world have taught me anything, though, it's that funding streams are only one piece of the puzzle. Giving people hope is another. So is the ability to approach a problem holistically, remembering that what's before you isn't a laundry list of problems to be solved, it's a human being who will take the reins and drive themselves forward, given the tools to do so.

Derrick, one of our participants, embodies this idea for me. Only 18 years old, the formerly homeless teen has been through a lot in his short life. His mother, disabled, had often struggled to care for him, and when she could no longer do so, Derrick found himself without a place to sleep. He rotated between the couches of family, friends, and acquaintances and counted down the days to his eighteenth birthday, when he would be legally independent.

On his eighteenth birthday, he started calling shelters, looking for a place he could start fresh. He found Neon House, Heartland Alliance's residential program for homeless youth. There, he's learned budgeting, resume writing, and restarted his GED classes -- not to mention securing a place to live. He's also found a job that's a good fit.

Now equipped with the life skills, determination, and support he needed, Derrick found his hope -- and a future. The ability to help others rise up, as Heartland Alliance did for Derrick, underscores the value of nonprofits. We believe in, trust, invest in, and support others in situations where, often, no one else is willing or able.

The shuttering of Hull House demonstrates that support can't be taken for granted. Even with their 122 years of service and more than 60,000 participants served, one of Chicago's most respected names within the nonprofit community was vulnerable.

That's why we can't waste this moment. As we mourn the loss of the Hull House, let's remember that we have the ability to stop such tragedies in the future. Please, donate your time, energy, and resources to causes you're passionate about. Help the nonprofits you care about weather these difficult times. Otherwise we risk not only programs and projects, but the hope and opportunities upon which we can each build a future.