Retired Libertyville executive finds second career in childhood learning

As a corporate executive for Lincolnshire-based Hewitt Associates, Lori Miller led a national team helping large companies communicate human resources programs to employees.

A week after retiring from the fast-paced job she loved, the Libertyville resident was looking for her next mission. She found it during a presentation by Geoffrey Canada, a passionate educator and president of the Harlem Children's Zone in New York City.

"It was really inspirational, so I decided to get involved," Miller said of the event 10 years ago. She chose to work with United Way of Lake County as a volunteer focusing on early childhood learning.

"If we can reach parents and children at the very beginning, the data shows they have much better potential than people who don't have that support early," Miller said.

Beginning with a modest commitment of an hour a week to the organization's Reading Success program, Miller became immersed in the goal of helping young children build literacy skills.

With an all-in tenacity, Miller taught, but she also learned about the needs in Lake County. She signed up for more programs and kept going.

"I feel like lots of people could do the kind of things I'm doing if they take the first step to volunteer somewhere," Miller said.

Miller is the 2021 chair of the organization's Women United, a powerful network of 112 women.

The passion and expertise of its members is focused on childhood learning in Lake County's most vulnerable communities, including Waukegan, North Chicago, Round Lake and Zion. In the last seven years the group has raised and granted about $700,000 to help 825 low-income children.

While that remains the cornerstone, this year the organization also is pursuing an initiative to fit the times. "Diversity, inclusion and belonging" is meant to bring more women of color into the organization. A community forum on early learning and diversity issues is planned for March 18.

"We want to make sure we are recognizing the diversity of our communities," Miller said.

Sandra Bankston, a victim coordinator for the Lake County state's attorney's office and co-chair of the United Way subcommittee leading the effort, says she loves Miller's heart and interest in helping others, but her quiet demeanor can be misleading.

"She's a roll-up-her-sleeves type of person," Bankston said.

"There's no pretentiousness. She moves quietly and doesn't reflect on the magnitude of what she's doing."

Miller's long list of accomplishments and accolades began in a classroom at Lyon Magnet Elementary School in Waukegan helping children build literacy skills.

The commitment was for an hour a week, but the teacher "clearly needed extra help," Miller recalled. "So, I kept staying longer hours."

That led to a full day in the classroom, chaperoning and raising money for field trips, buying supplies and working with the neediest students. When the teacher went on maternity leave, Miller earned a license and stepped in as a long-term substitute teacher.

"She put her heart into ensuring the success of those students and spent countless hours helping them with school, life and growth," said Lori Nerheim, vice president for marketing and communication at United Way of Lake County.

During her stay at Lyon, Miller learned her own life lesson. On a cold December day, she sent first-grader Kihla Bell home after the child said she felt sick. When Miller left for the day two hours later, she saw Kihla and her mother, Veena, waiting at a bus stop.

The family didn't have a car and Veena had to leave work and pick up another daughter from child care before heading home.

Miller realized she didn't fully understand the situations of many families.

"It gave me a stomach ache," she said.

She drove them home that day and has stayed in touch.

"She kind of became part of the family," Veena Bell said this past week. "She went above and beyond."

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Lori Miller chairs United Way of Lake County's Women United. Courtesy of United Way of Lake County
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