The urge to serve, for little or no pay through not-for-profits or government-sponsored opportunities like AmeriCorps or Teach For America, is now well woven into our community fabric.
Therefore, it’s difficult to believe that such opportunities did not exist as recently as 25 years ago. But they didn’t. Winnetkan Michael Alter, and his mother Laura, helped bring them to life.
Michael graduated from New Trier West in 1979 and headed to Harvard. He found roommates with whom he shared a dream and “held many deep conversations about the need for a national service ‘Action Tank,’ as opposed to a think tank,” he explains.
Laura loved their vision and passion. “When we visited college and took them to dinner, this was what the roommates always talked about,” she says. “I was in awe of this novel idea.” She did all she could to nurture it.
Michael and his friends launched “City Year,” a year-long youth service corps opportunity, in Boston in 1984. It’s success led to other programs being modeled on it.
In 1988, Michael returned to Chicago for law school and to work at the real estate firm his father built, The Alter Group, which he now runs. Soon thereafter, he decided to found the City Year Chicago, with Laura’s enthusiastic support. She turned her elegant Woodley Road home into start-up headquarters and bunk house for the out-of-towners. “And I did the skut work,” she laughs. “That’s what you do when you start up!”
City Year volunteers commit one or two years of their young adult lives serving proudly, in uniform and under an inspiring code of ethics, in struggling urban schools. It’s now grown to 20 cities, with 1,500 volunteers per year making a difference in the lives of students in the neighborhoods and schools they serve. It seems impossible to count the number of lives improved by similar service programs, such as AmeriCorps.
City Year Chicago recently held its 11th annual “Ripples of Hope” awards benefit, which raised $450,000. Laura greeted everyone, beaming like the proud mother that she is—of Michael and of City Year.
Although he is the visionary behind the success, Michael didn’t take the stage. Instead, he let fellow Winnetkans Pat Ryan and Deb DeHaas, the Chicago White Sox, 125 red-jacketed corps members and several students reading moving essays about the difference their City Year tutor made to them tell the story of the success his college dreams launched.