05/26/2014 08:36 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Chicago Means to Me

When my friend Mary Prchal and I founded Chicago Cares 23 years ago, the volunteer landscape looked much different. At the time, my friends and colleagues had an interest in volunteering, but lacked the channel to do so. Opinions on the city's challenges were formed from a distance, but often not from a first-person understanding. And people were hesitant to get involved because they didn't think they could make a lasting impact.

But I knew differently.

As a teen, I started volunteering at camps for underserved kids. And I never stopped. I took part in service projects all over the city. I saw that my small acts of service led to bigger acts and that lots of small impacts led to big changes over time.

But that wasn't all. My volunteer experiences taught me about myself and about the world. They were a critical part of my education as a human being. I met people from all neighborhoods across the city and realized just how much we have in common.

To this day, every time I see a news story about Englewood, Austin or Pilsen, I have context because I have been there and I have worked side-by-side with people in those communities. I have met teachers there and I have made friends there. This matters -- to me and to the future of our city.

So, back in 1991, I thought to myself... imagine if we could tackle our city's challenges through people -- enabling Chicagoans to collaborate and problem-solve. And with that, Chicago Cares was born. I am the first to humbly admit that, in the 23 years since, I could not have imagined that Chicago Cares would have mobilized half a million volunteers to meet our city's needs. Nor could I have imagined that after volunteering with Chicago Cares, 99% of our volunteers now feel they can continue making an impact in the community.

Chicago Cares works because we sit at a unique intersection. We have hundreds of long-standing partnerships in the city and understand the ever-changing needs of our neighborhoods. At the same time, we are experts in understanding how individuals and corporations can and want to engage. As a result, we are able to help hundreds of nonprofits fulfill their missions by creating, leading and managing volunteer projects that are desperately needed, but beyond the capabilities of under-resourced schools and agencies.

In 23 years, Chicago Cares has gone from just an idea to an enduring organization. We've grown, we've evolved, and we've shifted with the needs of communities, nonprofits, volunteers and corporate partners. We've engaged and educated an entire generation of Chicagoans. And now it's time to engage the next.

As we prepare for Serve-a-thon, the city's largest day of service, on June 7, we're asking people to share -- through stories, pictures and video -- what Chicago means to them. We're bringing our city of broad shoulders and broader minds together. And we're building on our movement, a community-wide effort that's critical to the future of our city.

Think about the power we have to band together to help our communities, our neighborhoods and each other. Let's dream: How can we make this great city greater?

Sign up for Serve-a-thon by May 29
Share your thoughts @ChicagoCares using #MyChi.