A young Amy Newman was shopping in a department store with her mother, Pam, when Pam and a salesclerk engaged in a lengthy conversation decades ago.
The friendly chat ended. A curious Amy then reconnected with her mother, looked up, and asked, “Why, Mommy? Why were you talking with that lady?”
“Because,” a smiling Pam replied, “she needed to talk to someone. So I listened.”
Typical Pam, wonderful at every turn and the popular teacher and counselor at William Howard Taft High School in Chicago. Patient Pam. Caring Pam.
“The nicest person ever,” Newman, now 46 and a teacher at Glenwood Elementary School in Waukegan, says of her mother, who died in 2011. “Funny, sweet, a great storyteller. You were drawn to her. She volunteered at The ARK (a Chicagobased social service organization) and did all kinds of things for others, because giving back was important to her.”
Newman’s mother was on her mind when she decided to launch Families Helping Families Chicagoland (FHFC) in 2015. Less than two years later the charitable organization—based at Newman’s home in Gurnee—received 501(c)(3) status. FHFC works with social service agencies and schools in Lake and Cook counties to meet the needs of children and families experiencing homelessness, poverty, food insecurity, and other challenges.
Newman, who grew up in Glenview and attended Glenbrook South High School, had never witnessed poverty until she saw it in one of her Glenwood classrooms, up close and … heartbreaking. It shook her.
It also catapulted her to action.
“It surprised me,” recalls Newman, FHFC’s founder/president. “The city of Waukegan, it’s only 30 or so miles from Glenview, practically down the street from the world I lived in—a bubble—as a child and a teen. Some of the students I taught didn’t have shoes, didn’t have winter coats, didn’t have school supplies. Their stomachs hurt because they hadn’t eaten breakfast. Some of them stuffed their backpacks with extra food after lunch so they’d have something to eat for dinner.
“What I was hearing from my students concerned me. You know how kids are—so open and honest, saying it like it is. I immediately thought, ‘What can I do to help?’ ”
Newman reached out to her friends and informed them of the plight of her students. They responded like her mother would have: quickly and kindly. Friends donated gym shoes and coats and money for field trips. Newman bought books for her students and told each, “Read it and keep it.” She then came up with countless other ways to honor her mother.
Families Helping Families Chicagoland was born shortly thereafter. Since then, FHFC, thanks to generous sponsors and donors and the use of grants, has partnered with United Way and Highland Park-based BellaRu Catering to give fresh food to more than 1,000 families; helped Puerto Rican victims (the sister of a North Shore man and her two children) of Hurricane Maria by providing housing in Lake County and a wide variety of essential items; made birthdays and holidays better for families in need; donated blankets and clothes and phone chargers to residents displaced by home fires and later worked with nurses to make sure the suddenly homeless wouldn’t be medication-less for long; and met other immediate needs—within 48 hours—of those in the throes of other crises.
“The needs of families in our communities have risen dramatically since the start of the pandemic,” Newman says, adding FHFC’s allvolunteer board has relied primarily on social media to drive its philanthropic efforts since its inception. “We’ve been around for about five years now, and you know what it felt like in 2020? It was like we’d been gearing up all those years to be ready for the many challenges that accompanied Covid-19. Children had to adjust to a number of drastic changes last year, remote learning emerging as the biggest. Their parents had to deal with changes, too.
“Guess what hasn’t changed?” she adds. “Families needing immediate assistance. We want to be there for them; we have to be there for them. There’s endless joy in banding together and showing those in need how many people care about them.”
Newman’s father, Mark, also taught, instructing media communications students at KennedyKing College in Chicago. Amy, who had known for years that she wanted to teach for a living, became a lead teacher in the Titan Tots Preschool at Glenbrook South High School and, as a fourthyear student in the school’s Child Development Program, taught second-graders four times a week at St. Catherine Laboure Catholic School in Glenview. An art activity—threading strings through holes of pieces of paper to make animals—failed, but her on-the-fly Plan B—creating thin books, with those pieces of paper— halted the students’ teardrops and transformed looks of frustration into sustained looks of animation.
“My parents were changing kids’ lives for the better every day,” says Newman, who majored in sociology at Illinois State University and earned her Master of Art in Teaching at National Louis University’s Wheeling campus. “It’s in my blood, teaching. I’ve always loved kids. And I absolutely love watching them learn and grow.”
Newman landed her first teaching gig at nowdefunct Lincoln Elementary School in Highland Park, filling in for six months for a third-grade teacher on leave. Her first stint at Glenwood Elementary lasted from 1998-2013; she returned to the classroom at the Waukegan school before the start of the 2020-2021 academic year. She also commutes from her digs near Six Flags Great America to Highland Park to tutor children.
The stepmother of Emily, 16, and the mother of 7-year-old twins Brooke and AJ with her husband of 11 years, Brian, Amy got to know her future husband initially at a Speed Dating activity. Later, the pair connected via eharmony. com. But their courtship didn’t commence until after Amy crossed paths with Brian at a singles event.
“You know what they say about ‘the third time,’ ” Amy says, chortling. “I remember seeing him at the singles event and going, ‘Oh, there’s that guy … again.’ I couldn’t be happier now, having him as my husband. What a wonderful man. He’s smart, funny, kind, so giving.” And quite adept at dancing, particularly at home. How else would Brian Newman be able to navigate nimbly around islands of Amazon boxes—sometimes up to 30—strewn across the floor, the ones containing essential goods for others and addressed to Families Helping Families Chicagoland?
For more information about Families Helping Families Chicagoland, along with ways to provide support for the organization, visit fhfchicagoland.org and facebook.com/fhfchicagoland or call 847-668- 4878.