Four suburbanites to be thankful for this year
On this oldest American holiday of Thanksgiving, we naturally set aside time to give thanks for what we have. But Thanksgiving also makes the perfect time to say thanks to those neighbors who are giving so much of themselves.
The suburbs are full of people whose selflessly give their time, talents and effort to make the world a better place.
Retired special education coordinator Polly Andrews of Mundelein builds a second career as "Aunt Polly," a popular volunteer and tutor for kids.
Running a family with two young children of her own, Naperville attorney Dana Davenport still finds the time and energy to work with the DuPage Children's Museum.
Capturing the kindness of others with his talented photography, Barrington's Bob Lee works behind the lens and out in front to make good things happen.
As executive director of Lazarus House in St. Charles, Liz Eakins works full time for the homeless.
As you read the full stories about these people, you'll notice a couple of similarities they all share -- an infectious smile and an unquenchable passion. And, as it is with every good Thanksgiving bounty, they let people take home their leftovers.
Bob Lee, photographer
Bob Lee of Barrington says giving back is what life is all about
Through the lens of his camera, Bob Lee says, he gets to see all the good things that happen in the Barrington community.
Over 16 years, Lee, 73, has taken and donated photographs of his fellow givers and volunteers at countless events for charity.
"He has shared his talent for photography with the community so willingly and so capably," Barrington Village President Karen Darch said. "He's captured so many terrific moments in the community's history that are such a gift to all of us."
Bob's wife, Anne Lee, who has been with him for 54 years, said his photographs tell the goodness of the Barrington community.
"Bob is so passionate about his photography that some weekends there are five different things for him to photograph," Anne Lee said.
Lee's photographs can't contain all of the good happening in Barrington, however, because his camera doesn't take pictures of the man behind the lens.
Lee doesn't just shoot charitable events, he organizes them and participates in them. His dedication has not gone unnoticed -- in the last eight years he has won volunteer awards from the American Cancer Society, the National Hospice Foundation and the Les Turner ALS Foundation, which also gave him the Citizen of the Year Award.
Lee doesn't do it for awards and accolades. He wants to enrich the lives of people in Barrington and, in so doing, enrich his own.
"I've found that you can lead a healthier and longer life if you can give back," Lee said. "If we put other people in front of ourselves that's a medicine that we don't need a doctor for. If you do that you're going to find a greater joy."
Lee's dedication is so all-consuming it makes you think he's been involved in charitable work his whole life, but he didn't start until after he retired as president of Baltimore-based window covering manufacturer Eastern Standard Corp. about 16 years ago.
"I had an enjoyable business career, but when I'm on my deathbed looking back I'm going to look at the after-work life rather than the during work part of my life," Lee said.
Lee credits the 1997 book "Tuesdays with Morrie" among his chief inspirations. The book describes the 14 Tuesday meetings Detroit columnist Mitch Albom had with a former college professor who was suffering from ALS. Lee came away with a determination to begin finding a balance in his life.
Shortly after Lee retired, a neighbor to whom he'd lent his copy of "Tuesdays with Morrie" was diagnosed with ALS.
"My first thought was how can I get involved?" Lee said. "I had never done a fundraiser before. I never was comfortable asking for things or money. But over the last 15 years I've learned that you're not asking for yourself, you're asking for others."
His first big effort was in 2001 when he raised $86,000 riding his bike 3,254 miles from San Diego to Jacksonville, Florida, the first of three Ride for 3 Reasons bike tour. Lee's reasons were ALS research, cancer research and hospice care. His next two bike tours, in 2007 and in 2012, brought his fundraising total to more than $1 million.
Lee said he wants his story to inspire others.
"There's need for charity, there's need for help," Lee said. "We all can make a difference."
When people start their journey into giving, they will find what works for them, he says.
"The more you get involved, the more you see different things that are going on in that the web of goodness within our community," Lee said. "And you'll find parts of that web that you want to get caught into."
Others parts of the web are for somebody else.
"That's fine," Lee says, "but get caught in something. Not just for the cause but for yourself."
Liz Eakins, Lazarus House director
Ending homelessness may seem like a lofty goal, but Liz Eakins aims to do it one Fox Valley family at a time.
Eakins is the executive director of Lazarus House in St. Charles, a homeless shelter, transitional living and outreach program that has been serving Kane County for 18 years. It also provides a soup kitchen for people in need in Batavia, Geneva, St. Charles and rural western Kane County.
"Our mission is to serve those that are homeless or are at risk of homelessness by providing them with tools for life," said Eakins, who has been with the agency for 10 years, five as director.
The agency serves 51 men, women and children of all ages per night through its shelter and transitional living program. In addition, "About 58 people per night are in subsidized housing spread throughout our community," Eakins added.
From offering meals to financial assistance through rent subsidies, the agency aims to stabilize people in their homes.
"We are very focused on our case management model, which addresses the unique needs of each family or individual that comes through our doors," Eakins said.
Together, they develop a plan to ensure the person or families are no longer at risk, she added.
"As we have built our outreach program, we are seeing that our shelter numbers are stabilizing as well," Eakins said. "The ultimate goal is to have people stabilizing in their housing.
"We don't do this alone. We have a network of partner agencies that complement the services that we provide by offering their own expertise in medical care, mental health care, substance abuse, financial literacy."
Roughly 2,000 volunteers yearly help with Lazarus House's programs, such as running employment workshops and a weekly parenting group, and providing domestic violence counseling.
The agency's $1.3 million annual budget is largely covered through federal and state funding, as well as donations from community groups, including churches, foundations, and grants.
"We continue to advocate for those that are struggling to support themselves and to develop new and innovative ways to have their needs met while remaining in their own community," Eakins said. "Our real goal is to prevent people from ever coming through our doors to begin with."
Polly Andrews, teacher
Much has changed in education and the world since Polly Andrews left the University of Illinois with a teaching degree more than 50 years ago. But the lifelong Mundelein resident, affectionately known by students and others as Aunt Polly, has not wavered in her dedication to the craft.
Since retiring in 1999 as the special education coordinator in Libertyville Elementary District 70, where she spent her entire career, Andrews has become a fixture in her hometown Mundelein Elementary District 75 and spends countless hours volunteering time and expertise.
"You walk into any event the district is sponsoring and there's Polly," said Vivian Callender, who was among the community members suggesting Andrews as a person to be thankful for. "She's easy to find."
After 38 years, Andrews is still at it -- tutoring English Language Learners to learn English and building their vocabularies at Sandburg Middle School once or twice a week and taking part in other district activities.
"She comes with a smile, she comes with a big heart and wants to help," Sandburg Principal Mark Pilut said.
On a recent morning, Andrews patiently and methodically is tutoring eighth-grader Samantha Santiago, who speaks no English, using something called "menu math," which uses food choices as a way to gain math skills. Santiago's Chromebook has a translating function to use as needed.
"I love it. It makes me feel good. I have a really good life and it's time to give back. It's my passion," Andrews said after the lesson.
Andrews grew up in Mundelein and began teaching first grade at Copeland Manor School in District 70 in 1964. She continued her education and received degrees in administration and special education. She still hears from some of her former students, who now have grandchildren of their own.
Andrews said she began volunteering in District 75 about 13 years ago, helping with "anything the teachers want." And that wasn't all.
Through her career, Andrews kept pace with technology and developed a background in databases. About 10 years ago, she set up a program to organize efforts and provide electronic communication with volunteers throughout the district's three schools.
"Now I'm turning it over to other people. It's a pretty big job," Andrews said.
Technology is having an impact in the classroom as well, she noted.
"I'm so excited about what learning can be now," she added.
Callender, is a former teacher with 32 years experience. She has a child who went through District 75 and is a now high school freshman and another child who is at Sandburg, and she has known Andrews for 10 years.
"The thing that has always amazed me is the consistency. We've all ebbed and flowed. Not Polly," she said. "I can even tell you how her teeth are lined up. The woman is always smiling."
Pilut described Andrews as the "perfect volunteer."
"She's done a lot for the district and she doesn't have to," he said.
Andrews said she and other volunteers accept the accolades but don't seek them.
"Really, it's a little embarrassing. It's just something I like to do -- it gives meaning in my life," she said.
Dana Davenport, DuPage Children's Museum's Next Gen
Dana Davenport of Naperville is the type who will probably join a board of directors some day.
A 36-year-old attorney at a Chicago firm, she's polished and professional and she values giving back -- especially to a favorite place of her 6- and 4-year old children: the DuPage Children's Museum.
But being on a governing board for the museum or any other organization would be a time commitment Davenport can't yet make. So she became the leader of the next best thing: the DuPage Children's Museum's Next Gen Board, a group of young professionals that fundraises for the museum and trains -- informally -- to become its future leaders.
"Board service is very important to me, and as a mother with young kids, I don't have much time," Davenport said.
Neither do the rest of the Next Gen Board members, about 35 of them, who are mainly parents and professionals in their 30s. They convened first in fall 2013 and became official this January, bylaws and all.
Not long after, they were called to action by a force of nature and a failure of piping. A pipe burst inside the museum on the frigid night of Jan. 9, flooding all three levels of the early learning and play space at 301 N. Washington St. and forcing its closure. For eight months.
"When the flood happened, people on the board were reaching out to me like, 'What can we do?'" Davenport said.
But by then, Davenport and her fellow board members already had done a lot. They'd went from strangers who shared an interest in the museum to event planners and fellow partygoers, raising $37,000 at the Next Gen Board's first event in June 2014, deemed a "party with a purpose."
They hosted a throwback bash to the '80s, to the days when Next Geners themselves were the right age to play in the museum as kids. Davenport cringes at how much crimped hair and neon she saw and how many shoulder pads and leg warmers. Dressing the part, she says, was optional.
Bad fashion aside, the money the event generated -- a total of $72,000 when it was matched by $35,000 from a member of the museum's board of directors -- came in handy when repairs needed to be made, said Sarah Orleans, president and CEO.
"It helped us build the reserves that helped carry us for the first couple months while we were sorting out the insurance," Orleans said.
Davenport and her peers helped further by planning not one but two fundraisers this year to bring in even more money to get the museum back up and running. Renovations cost an estimated $2 million.
Next Gen events in May and November, each billed again as "a party with a purpose," raised roughly $50,000 toward the repair total.
"We have a good time," Davenport said. "We are people who genuinely like to engage socially and get things done."
One water-damaged area of the museum owes its facelift even more specifically to Davenport: the new Mayor A. George Pradel Volunteer Center. She found a contact to furnish the center on the upper level for free with tables, chairs and cabinets.
"She's a force," said Laura Naab, manager of membership and the annual fund at the museum. "She's hilarious. She's strong. She's a great leader."
Under Davenport's wing, the Next Gen group welcomes young professionals and shapes them into the type of people who know what their community values and work to protect it, Orleans said.
Davenport leads because her kids love the museum and because she sees the positive influence it provides.
"The exhibits are very carefully designed and thought out to promote education and exploration for young minds," she said.
Luckily for 6-year-old Trey and 4-year-old Lena, the museum is two blocks from their home. Maybe it's even their second home.
Davenport plans to keep it that way as she and her board mates prepare for the future, for their next fundraiser, for their next contribution to the community -- be it at the museum or elsewhere.
"This is an opportunity to really grow leaders," Orleans said.