Helen López Strom doesn't like to be in the spotlight. But, unfortunately for her modesty, López Strom's successful leadership as president of LULAC Council 5236 has made her unable to avoid it the last couple years.
In 2010, she won a City of Elgin Image Award. In 2011, she won an Elgin YWCA Leader Award for Racial Justice and the LULAC Council 5236 Woman of the Year Award. This year she won a local Women of Grace and Dignity Award and was named LULAC Woman of the Year at the state level.
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"I like to be a behind-the-scenes person," López Strom said. "Everything that has occurred in the last two years has just been a whirlwind."
López Strom went to her first local League of United Latin American Citizens meeting about three years ago and became the vice president during council elections not long after.
At her first meeting, she was impressed by the diverse, dedicated group of people at the table with LULAC. As evidenced by her quick accumulation of accolades, the Elgin wife, mother and educator dove right in, drawn to the mission of the Latino organization working with the community.
The group has become exceedingly focused on education in the last few years, working with Judson University, Elgin Area School District U-46, Elgin Community College, the Youth Leadership Academy, the Gail Borden Public Library and the Elgin Public Museum on learning-based initiatives.
"I'm really strong on the fact that education is our future," López Strom said. "I don't think any of us has been putting enough emphasis back on trying to get hispanos educated so they can better their lives."
López Strom went to the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign for undergraduate and graduate work, finishing her second degree with a master's in early childhood education. Since then she has been saddened to find out the number of Latinos in college, both men and women, has not gone up.
It was in doing research to apply for the Ford Driving Dreams through Education grant that López Strom realized how low college-going rates are for Latinos.
"We have to turn the tide somehow," López Strom said.
With the Ford grant, which the Elgin LULAC council received this year, local mentors will track 15 middle school and 15 high school Latina students for two years of leadership camps and STEM-based learning activities.
As underrepresented as Latinas are on college campuses in general, they are even more absent from STEM -- Science, Technology, Engineering and Math -- fields.
López Strom said the Adelante con STEM (Moving Forward with STEM) program is designed to reach at-risk girls and make science and technology-based learning more fun.
As president of the local LULAC council, López Strom also negotiated a second five-year scholarship offer from Judson University to give promising Latino students from the area money for school -- a total allocation of $100,000 over five years.
Through each LULAC initiative, the local council is reaching out to other community organizations, forging new partnerships -- like recent workshops for the Adelante con STEM initiative in September that included people from the Girl Scouts of America and the American Association of University Women.
"That's been our biggest plus in the last few years -- really reaching out to the community saying we can't do this ourselves, we have to do it together," López Strom said, "for the betterment of the whole community."
Besides LULAC López Strom also volunteers with Administer Justice, a legal agency founded by her husband, Bruce, and she has been very involved in the schools her 13-year-old twin sons attend.
López Strom worked in bilingual education at U-46 for several years after she got her master's degree, later leaving full-time work to raise her children. She encourages young women to get an education, no matter what their future career plans are.
"Learning should be for learning, not just education to get a career," López Strom said. "When you teach a mom, she teaches her children."