A Powerful Local Volunteering Model is Bringing Positive Change to Chicago Neighborhoods

The Power of Togetherness as Told by Chicago Cares

Authentic human interaction leads to lasting change. In a time of digital disruption, the power of human connection is key to upward mobility within our communities. Chicago Cares provides a platform for individuals to volunteer side-by-side with neighboring community members.

The organization’s model focuses on place-based volunteer service with 200 volunteer projects open to the public each month. Place-based service brings diverse people together through hands-on volunteer projects, completed on-site in the neighborhood they benefit.

“When volunteers from outside the community meet neighborhood leaders and serve alongside resilient neighborhood volunteers … the narrative changes,” Leslie Bluhm, co-founder of Chicago Cares, said in her opening remarks at the organization’s annual breakfast on April 16, their fifth annual State of Volunteerism Address.

The urgency of engagement in local volunteerism, particularly in a sprawling urban center like Chicago, cannot be overstated, as Bluhm stressed. “Chicago’s continuing legacy of segregation holds our city back from reaching its full potential,” she said. “Chicagoans are disconnected from people living in other communities and negative narratives persist about certain neighborhoods. This leads to isolation and disinvestment.”

But engaging in local volunteerism can help turn this tide. “When communities are more civically engaged, unemployment is lower and students’ academic achievement is higher,” notes Professor Robert Putnam of Harvard University. “As a result, families flourish, local businesses prosper, and communities are safer and stronger.”

Since 1991, Chicago Cares has mobilized more than 600,000 volunteers from every zip code in the city. They have partnered with more than 1,000 nonprofits and schools and continue to create lasting change.

At the annual breakfast, keynote speaker Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III used jazz as a moving metaphor to illustrate how powerful these collaborative unions between diverse groups can be. “Instruments that are not supposed to play together, end up playing together,” he said.

This diversity brings a special beauty to both music and society: “Everybody from different sectors of cultures are able to come together and bring something new to the music,” he said. “What’s so beautiful about jazz is that everybody has a right to solo. You can bring in your own particular cultural narrative and what you bring to the table to beautify something that is happening in the music.”

The parallel between jazz and the will to connect and empathize provides a clear, hopeful image of what the city could be.

“You’ll never hear the bass tell the piano, you must sound like me,” Moss said. “They all come together and they begin to play a new song. And that is what I see in Chicago … If we create this jazz narrative in this city, with different sectors and different sides and different cultures coming together, maybe we will truly be able to play what John Coltrane says is ‘A Love Supreme.’”

Chicago Cares hosted their fifth annual State of Volunteerism Address, The Power of Togetherness, at the Four Seasons. The annual breakfast serves as a discussion regarding the current challenges facing Chicago and how to turn action into impact.

The event was made possible by the generosity and support of Accenture, Allstate Insurance Company, Bluhm Family Charitable Foundation, Cigna, Constellation Brands, Equity Commonwealth, GCM Grosvenor, Deloitte LLP, Discover Financial Services, Goldman Sachs, The Keywell Foundation, US Trust, Ariel Investments, The Boeing Company, Capital One, CBRE, Perkins Coie LLP, PNC Bank, R4 Services LLC, RSM US LLP, and Ventas, Inc.

This year’s program included remarks from Dr. Janice Jackson, CEO, Chicago Public Schools; Bluhm; Mayor Rahm Emanuel, City of Chicago; Lannon Broughton, volunteer leader, Chicago Cares; Bruce Jacobson, chief commercial officer, Constellation Brands; Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, senior pastor, Trinity United Church of Christ; and Jenné Myers, CEO, Chicago Cares. Amongst other notable attendees were elected officials: City Clerk Anna Valencia, Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin, Congressman Danny Davis, and State Sen. Kwame Raoul.

For more information on how to get involved with Chicago Cares, visit chicagocares.org. Don’t miss Chicago’s largest day of service, Serve-a-thon! Join 5,000 fellow Chicagoans in a day of volunteering on June 23. Registration closes June 15.


More from Make It Better: 

Emily Stone is Associate Editor at Make It Better. She earned a degree in journalism from Elon University in North Carolina. Along with writing, Stone has a passion for digital storytelling and photography. Her work is published in Chicago Athlete Magazine. Stone is a supporter of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Stone is a fluent Spanish speaker who in her free time loves a good dance class.



  Who We Are       NFP Support       Magazine       Programs       Donate