A woman who is $1,000 behind on her rent is asking for help. A single dad of four needs to find affordable day care while he works his warehouse job. A woman battling cancer is struggling to pay her utility bills.
The place where these people used to get help was called CEDA (Community and Economic Development Association) Northwest, a Mount Prospect-based social service organization that was a branch of CEDA of Cook County. But earlier this month, CEDA Northwest broke ranks with the county to form its own, smaller, community-based group, Northwest Compass.
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Northwest Compass provides essentially the same services as before -- food, housing, child care, job programs and emergency services to people facing hardships. The agency just provides it with a different management structure now, and on its own terms.
The change -- an amicable split that had been in the works for years -- meant Northwest Compass had to sacrifice one-fourth of its federal funding and restructure its programs to rely more heavily on volunteers and interns. It slowly whittled the staff down to 11 people, but built an army of 250 volunteers who help with everything from job interview coaching to follow-up calls for clients.
Rather than get approval for everything from the CEDA Chicago office, Northwest Compass can now work directly with local schools and organizations to get their clients the services and support they need.
"There's something really valuable about being local, and really knowing the community," said Ron Jordan, Northwest Compass' chief executive officer. "We want to provide hope and encouragement, not just services. I would not be in this field if we were just giving handouts."
The change also makes the group less vulnerable to the ongoing budget cuts CEDA of Cook County was facing. Jordan said the Northwest suburbs were sometimes viewed as "the wealthy part of Cook County," giving them lower priority.
To people who rely on CEDA Northwest, the switch has been seamless, Jordan said. So far this year, Northwest Compass has had 5,400 people reach out for help, either by phone or in person. Even post-recession, the number of walk-ins and middle class clients has been on the rise, he added.
On Monday mornings and following lunch breaks, there's usually a line of people waiting at the door for help.
When they come in, their first stop is often Jessica Salgado's cubicle. She runs Northwest Compass's Hardship Intervention & Referral program -- sort of like a first responder when people are in crisis. There, Salgado listens to people talk about their hardships, tries to validate their feelings, and then starts to line them up with services that can help them.
"People cry in my office all the time. Sometimes it's hard for me not to cry, too," she said. "Sometimes, people just want to vent their frustration, and that's OK. I try to find out what's going on. What caused you to fall behind on your rent?"
It's this type of personal touch that Jordan says differentiates Northwest Compass from other social service agencies. Jordan calls it "solution-focused case management." But what it means is showing compassion for people as they learn to empower themselves and stand on their own.
Northwest Compass's new logo, a butterfly, symbolizes the transition to better things. Their motto is, "Where Crisis Becomes Opportunity."
"It's very important to us that people feel understood. It's central to what we do here," Jordan said. "We spend the time with people when they're afraid and they don't know where to turn."