In 1974, Ellie Clarke’s 9-year-old daughter died of a brain tumor.
In the wake of her daughter’s death, Clarke says her own life felt meaningless.
“I thought about it a lot. What was I going to do? I wasn’t just going to sit around weeping all day,” remembers Clarke.
So she began volunteering, first at Children’s Memorial Hospital, where her daughter had passed away, and then at various other organizations.
In 1989, Clarke heard that Catholic Charities of Lake County wanted to start a Women’s Board to increase the organization’s visibility on the North Shore, and Clarke volunteered to be the first president, since she had experience on the Women’s Board at Children’s Memorial.
She started by helping to organize a luncheon to educate other women about the need for social services in low-income communities in Lake County.
“Nobody thought about North Chicago or Waukegan or the areas in the west,” Clarke says. “It was an eye-opener for many of these women.”
At their first benefit, the board raised $40,000. Today, the board raises about $250,000 to $300,000 a year. The money supports four main causes: Samaritan House, a transitional shelter in North Chicago for single women and children; the Emergency Food Pantry in Waukegan; the Family Self-Sufficiency Program, which helps low-income women find housing and jobs; and the Christmas Gift Program, which provides Christmas gifts to more than 13,000 needy families in Lake County.
Although the group is allied with the Catholic Church, the programs supported by the Women’s Board help people of all faiths.
Over the last 22 years, Clarke has been heavily involved in the group’s fundraising efforts, and she’s done hands-on volunteering for the programs. “I loved being with the people,” she says. “That’s where you feel like you’re making a difference.”
In addition to her efforts with Catholic Charities, Clarke also volunteers with Camp Independence, a summer camp in Ingleside for children with spina bifida; Horizon Hospice in Chicago; and, of course, Children’s Memorial.
“I feel it’s very important to give back,” Clarke says. “I’ve always been blessed and had a wonderful life.”