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posted: 4/29/2014 5:30 AM

Cannings discuss logic behind their Harper gift

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In the early 1980s, newly divorced and in search of a job, Rita Canning headed to Harper College.

She had been out of the workforce for some 20 years. At Harper, she freshened her skills, then snagged a position at a Palatine manufacturer.

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"They were a tremendous help to me and my life," Canning said. "I just needed a little guidance at the time."

Canning wants that guidance to reach more women. She and her husband, John Canning, chairman of a Chicago private equity firm, have donated $1 million to the women's program at Harper, where she is a trustee.

The Inverness philanthropists recently talked to the Daily Herald about the largest gift in Harper's history.

This is an edited version of that conversation:

Q: The donation will direct $100,000 annually for the next decade. Why did you frame it like that?

Rita Canning: Harper is extremely fortunate to have this program on campus because the funding from the state began to become nonexistent. This program disappeared on many community college campuses.

There are very few in the state of Illinois that still have this program. I would like to make sure this is carried out as far into the future as we can.

Q: What attracted you to the program? These women are dealing with certain challenges. Roughly half are victims of domestic abuse. Some are learning English.

John Canning: For me, it's providing education to somebody who's disadvantaged and doesn't have the ability to do it themselves, but is willing to apply themselves. … It's a commitment. It's a program. It's not just a class.

Rita Canning: They have the guidance. It's not just hooking them up with, "Well, you can go to this school and get your degree here." It's empowering them, making them believe that they can do it and helping them to do it.

Q: What have the program's graduates shared with you?

Rita Canning: You're just blown away when you hear the stories of these women and their struggles. And they're going to succeed because of what happened at Harper. … It's nice to know you really can change things. I have nothing against donating to the Red Cross or some major organization, but I see the effects of what I do when I do this at Harper. I see it.

-- Katlyn Smith, ksmith@dailyherald.com

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