Building Momentum

We have a lot to discuss. I suggest we do it over a cup of your favorite caffeine, or a glass of fine wine.

You’ve sent so many good suggestions to Make It Better that we need to be comfortable to properly digest them.

Here’s just a sample of what’s come into my e-mail box these last few weeks. It’s inspiring and invigorating. In fact, there are so many great ideas and people in our community helping and needing help, I hardly know where to begin.

One Wilmette mother of three (ages 5 to 9) called from her hospital bed, having badly injured herself only one week after her sister attempted suicide.

She and a friend with a daughter battling brain cancer want to see a column on “How To Really Help Your Friends When They Really Need It.” (Apparently, some of our well-intentioned actions and words really miss their mark. Let’s work on that.)

On a more uplifting note, the power of neighborhood support wowed another Wilmette reader, Mylene Pollack, when she was feeling ill. “We know how to circle the wagons in Wilmette!” Pollack says. “Use that as a model for Make It Better.”

Can only one column reconcile these views and produce recommendations for the perfectly appropriate responses in times of need? I definitely need help with this one.

The story behind “Noah’s Playground For Everyone,” a wheelchair-accessible playground at the Lighthouse Landing Complex in Evanston, particularly touched my heart. Noah Cutter was born with severe neurological complications in May 2003 to Julie and David Cutter. His grandmother, Nancy Meyer, described him as “the embodiment of unconditional love and pure goodness.” Noah died in his sleep last Christmas Eve.

Noah’s parents head the fund-raising committee that is working in partnership with the Evanston Park District and Parks Foundation. The work includes more than building a beautiful playground; the committee hopes to raise awareness of the need for universally accessible playgrounds so that children with a wide range of special needs can play alongside their able-bodied peers. (As always, their contact information is below if you want to help.)

You also seem to want to talk about ways to Make It Better for (or with) education, athletics, the arts, dining, entertainment, our bodies and our spirits. Several readers recommend we celebrate our senior citizens. They are beautiful, healthy, wise and adventuresome, you say, but not visible enough in the press. Let’s do something about that, shall we?

Another recommendation I’m especially fond of is to find a way to support our small local businesses, in-home boutique shopping and other services. After all, isn’t building community and supporting friends what makes life in our hometowns better?

So where (big gulp of mocha for me) do we begin? Do we act locally — or think globally? And how do we best harness our resources? How do we get our children involved, teach them the importance of building communities and making a difference?

I don’t have a definitive answer, but I think Wilmette mother Helen Sweitzer is on the right track. I spoke with her recently about how her family “makes it better” by mentoring Somali refugee families in Chicago through Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Ministries (IRIM).

Sweitzer grew up in South Africa, came to Chicago to work at the South African Tourist Office and married the guide from her first U.S. white-water rafting trip — Rick. They moved to Wilmette, where Rick owns his own outdoor adventure business, The Northwest Passage.

And life is good for the Sweitzers on the North Shore, which is why Helen says she “desperately wanted (her) kids to learn how to give back, to care and share and understand how fortunate they are.”

After searching for years for a charitable organization that encouraged child participation, in 2004 she found IRIM on the Internet. To start, her 8-, 10- and 12-year-old kids made and distributed neighborhood fliers soliciting “toys, books and stuff kids like.” They then took the collected items to an IRIM Thanksgiving gathering. “The Somali kids were so bright, enthusiastic and happy to be here. They were infectious. My kids picked up on it.”

Since then the Sweitzer family has spent at least two hours each week “mentoring” a Somali family — two parents and five kids who live in a one-bedroom apartment in Rogers Park. “Two hours sounds full, but it’s actually easy,” Sweitzer explains. “You can still fit in your soccer or hockey games.” Each week she also teaches English to Somali classes and mentors a woman who fled Liberia after seeing her husband and other family members killed.

The Volunteer Center of New Trier Township honored Sweitzer April 29 at its Annual Luncheon, but husband Rick did not attend (in fact, he didn’t even know about the award) because he was drinking champagne on the North Pole with one of his many dog sled expeditions. So while Helen received her award for helping African refugees, Rick was talking by satellite phone to one of his children’s classes and teaching them about the North Pole.

Now that’s what I call Making It Better.

But here’s my concern: Has anyone else noticed a local geographic theme to all these Make It Better e-mails and column suggestions? They all seem to emanate from within Evanston and New Trier townships.

I’m perplexed.

Aren’t residents of other North Shore townships equally thoughtful, industrious, creative and giving? Of course you are! So as soon as you finish that drink, if you live north of Lake Cook Road or west of Skokie Boulevard, I invite you to join our conversation. Please write to [email protected]

To find out more about the Noah’s Playground For Everyone Committee, contact [email protected]

Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Ministries can be reached at 773/989-5647 or by writing [email protected] You can also contact Helen Sweitzer directly at [email protected]