THE GOOD NEWS for North Chicago Community Partners (NCCP) is that their work has not stopped since COVID-19 struck the world in mid- March of this year. And the bad news is . . . though their work has not stopped, they have found an even greater need to be filled in the community.
Co-founder and executive director Jennifer Grumhaus says this life-changing turn of events has allowed NCCP to hone in and focus on what is really of utmost importance. “The pandemic highlighted the need for the whole child and whole family support. We made a conscious decision to refocus our investments and make a real difference.”
NCCP was founded in 2008 with capital from the Gorter Family Foundation, a Lake Forest family. The original goals of NCCP are much the same as they are now. “When we became aware of the needs of our neighbors, we decided to be part of the solution and help make a change. Our mission is to provide equitable, high quality education to all children and to try and figure out how to bridge the opportunity gap for those from underfunded school districts,” Grumhaus says.
She is a former investment banker who changed careers after business school. “I married a man from Lake Forest and never expected that this is would be my life’s work. We have five biological kids. We have 30 plus other kids that have moved into our home for a period of time, over the past 10 years, several from North Chicago.”
“The ‘community school’ is the foundation of NCCP’s operating model. Rather than building another community center or spending money on bricks and mortar, the school becomes the setting for our work, so the money we raise and the talent and time we mobilize directly supports students, families, and educators,” Grumhaus explains.
“We’re trying to fill the gaps, not be the teachers. We hire from the community and hope to strengthen communities through the schools. We now have 35 employees and about 2,000 volunteers that work with us. They’re all very diverse, from different neighborhoods. Seventy percent of my employees are from North Chicago, Waukegan, Zion, on purpose. We’re really serving their community, if you will. My job is just to create a platform for these amazing young people, to do the work of their own community,” Grumhaus says.
Before COVID-19, NCCP supported the social, emotional, and academic skill development of students and helped address basic needs. This included lunchtime learning programs and after school programs. NCCP serviced approximately 1,500 students every week in some kind of wraparound program.
They also provide a school-based food pantry where they served 250 to 300 families—and a health clinic in school that serves several hundred students a year. There is also a vision program so children can get glasses. Additionally, they help plan and execute about 70 family events, engaging families more in the learning of their children.
“NCCP supports educators by doing all we can to ensure students come into the classroom and are ready to learn and have the extra support they need to thrive,” says Grumhaus. “NCCP is the lead organization ensuring our students are whole and healthy. Even during this COVID-19 crisis, they continued their important part and went above and beyond providing at-home educational activities for our students and lightened many burdens on our families,” says the Mayor of North Chicago, Leon Rockingham. “Jennifer Grumhaus and her staff have the energy, hope, and fire that’s resonating throughout the community—bringing so much to so many. Our schools have significantly improved in many areas and NCCP has a big part in that success. We are grateful for their commitment to D187 and the city of North Chicago.”
When the organization was originally founded, NCCP worked with grades K-12. But about five years ago, after working alongside the school district and after receiving support from a significant corporate sponsor, they were able to create an early childhood center in North Chicago. They now have about 280 young students, ages 3-5, who are able to receive a free education. When COVID-19 struck, Grumhaus wasted no time gathering her team and figuring out how they were going to meet the community’s needs. As a school-based program that could no longer meet in the schools, they basically had to rethink everything.
“In 72 hours, we recreated the whole organization. Every employee said, ‘we’re not afraid, and we want to serve.’ We stayed on the front lines and we became an essential business.”
The first thing NCCP did was create a whole new program structure, which they called the Community Care Plan. The plan includes three new programs, one of which is designed to provide essential resources to families, including food and infant care items. Instead of only serving food through the school-based pantry, NCCP now distributes resources at multiple locations to approximately 200 families each week.
Next, they attacked the challenges inherent with virtual learning, especially for lower income families. When March came and everyone was sheltering in place, most people found it challenging enough. But for the families that NCCP serves, that challenge was at an entirely different level. “We just knew how difficult virtual learning would be for our families. We also knew how difficult shelter in place would be,” Grumhaus shares. “Sheltering in place is different if you live in Lake Forest. We usually have a stock of books, board games, and art supplies that we can leverage to fill the time. Many of the families we serve don’t have access to those types of resources.”
Well aware of those differences, Grumhaus and her team decided to do something different for the families they serve. “Instead of doing more virtual learning, virtual engagement, we decided to put tangible things in the hands of our children and families. We created two new products, one called a snack and learn kit. Each kit is distributed weekly and includes five learning activities all in English and Spanish and several healthy snacks.”
Grumhaus shares that in addition to these kits designed specifically for children, they also prepared “family activity kits, which are more robust and designed for the whole family to use. We distributed these kits one time per month. The kits include cooking, art, health and wellness and STEM activities. We hoped they would keep families engaged and connected.”
“Our community school model is very unique. We have strong, authentic relationships within and around North Chicago. More than 50 partners work alongside us to support students and families. Churches, corporations, civic partners, schools . . . their extraordinary contributions of time, talent, and treasure make our work possible and differentiate NCCP from other organizations,” Grumhaus says.
“All of the communities in Lake County are rich with resources. It is humbling and encouraging to watch neighbors unite.”
For more information, please visit northchicagocommunitypartners.org.