Mary Ann Collins - Transcript

Transcript of Mary Ann Collins
Interviewee: Mary Ann Collins
Interviewer: Dorothy Nygren and Robert Remer
Place: 5358 N Ashland, Chicago, IL
Date: December 17, 2014
Transcriber: Dorothy Nygren
Time: 31:38

Copyright © 2015 Edgewater Historical Society

DN: Today is December 17, 2014. We are at the Edgewater Historical Society, with one of our 2015 Living Treasures, Mary Ann Collins. Congratulations, Mary Ann. We’re so grateful for all the work you’ve done in the community. This is Dorothy Nygren and Robert Remer, President of the Edgewater Historical Society doing this interview. The first question we would like to ask you is about your general background and how you came to Edgewater.

MC: All right. Well, it’s a story that goes back… actually it’s woven into my life. I grew up in Evanston and went to Saint Scholastica High School. There I met all these wonderful young women from Edgewater and when visiting them I found out what a great community it was. This was in the early 1970s. I would visit them and they would tell me, “Oh I know my neighbors.” I thought this was remarkable; everybody knows their neighbors; they’re all connected to one another; it’s a great place. That was the first thing that brought me to this wonderful community: hearing about their stories.


So then I went to college, first to Quincy [College], then Northern Illinois University. Then tat last year I took a course in gerontology. That sparked an interest in me. That’s where I want to go. I want to work with elder adults. I knew that was going to be my passion, where I wanted to work, in the field of aging. So from that I went back to Evanston and I met my husband at the Evanston Recreational Department. But that was just where we met each other. We didn’t know each other that well. He helped me with my resume. I told him, “My passion is to work with older adults. I don’t know how I can do this but I certainly want to get my foot in the door. I want to work with older adults.” So I was able to get a job with Bethesda Norwegian Lutheran Home on the northwest side. It was a great opportunity to meet some remarkable people. I worked there for five years. Then I married in 1982 and moved into Edgewater and at the same time Father Kenneally had just become the new pastor of St. Gertrude’s Church. He had met with the parents of St. Gertrude’s School and they said they wanted to do an intergenerational program. He found a coordinator from the parish who to meet with the parents who wanted this intergenerational writing correspondence. When she went to do this, the older adults in the community they said, “Well that’s nice dear, but what we really need is transportation to get to the doctor; help to get to the grocery store; run errands.” So the whole program changed. They said, “We’ve got to do this first. We’ve got to try to help some of the people in the neighborhood who really need that kind of support.”


I had my son in ’83, the year after I was married and I volunteered for this program. Then it dawned on me. It was wonderful that I worked for an institution but they all had support. They had food; they had everything they needed. But what happens to older adults in the Edgewater community who I am living with who need connection, support, caring. This is where the help needs to be. So the whole seed was kind of inside of me: to try to figure out to how to make a difference in this community. Then after volunteering, I worked with Jody Brower. She was the coordinator for awhile. When she left I took on this program [Neighbors Helping Neighbors which became Heart to Heart] and became the director in 1989. From that time I developed the program; met with people; had some incredible experiences; broadened the volunteer base. It originally started with just thirty older adults and twenty volunteers. But I saw the need, if I could; broaden it to people in the Edgewater community because I felt that people in the neighborhood just needed the same kind of care to what we were trying to do on the parish level.


Then Father Kenneally said, “OK, let’s broaden the program.” Then Cardinal Bernadin offered me an opportunity. I was on staff at parish. He said, “If you want to go back to school and you’re on the staff, we’ll give you an opportunity to do that.” I went to Loyola and got my masters in social work. I just wanted to figure out how to improve the lives of older adults in Edgewater. So that was 1997. By that time I went to Loyola, graduated in 2000 and the city was offering a grant to work with older adults.

So in 2001 I said, “OK. This is it. This is my opportunity.” They asked me to work on the task force on aging to be able to work with them. By 2003 I received an award from the city for excellence in services provided to senior citizens. It showed me that this was a model that we wanted to replicate in the city of Chicago. That was a time of growth and unfortunately that hasn’t continued. But I did try to go and mentor in other parts of the city to say this is what is needed.


The program from 2001-2009, at that time we were working with the City. Everything was going wonderful. We were reaching out to older adults. We were trying to provide the support they needed. We were trying to connect older adults with volunteers. So the program grew. Our numbers grew. We went from forty to over one hundred adults that we were working with. It grew to about ninety volunteers at that time. We were reaching out to all congregations. We were reaching out to people of faith, to people of no faith. We were reaching out to people who were older who needed a little bit of help, but who needed so much. Through the 90’s and 2000s…. By 2009 we realized the city was asking us to move away from our mission [of enhancing the lives of older people by connecting them to supportive help from volunteers], so I had to actually sever our ties because they wanted us to do crisis management. I wanted to go back to our mission of helping older adults who just needed a little bit of support with volunteers to give them the connection, resources, and care that they needed. I would call the city if we needed crisis intervention. So that’s how the program evolved and that’s been my path.


I think the major theme of the whole Heart to Heart program was to find people who were isolated, many who lived on Sheridan, the high rises or people whose neighbors left and needed to have their support and didn’t have it anymore or they lived in a home and they were the last ones remaining and they needed help. “Where am I going to get that help with mowing the lawn or snow shoveling?” Just so many simple things they needed. Some just needed to know someone cares. So Heart to Heart did all kinds of things in those days. We tried to send birthday cards so they knew they were cared for on their birthday. Or just to have someone visit them to hear their story. That’s what made Heart to Heart so important. Here they had life stories to tell, but no one to tell their stories to. So getting them to tell their stories enriched the volunteer lives and enriched their lives. It was a remarkable opportunity to make a difference in the community with just a little caring, outreach that we did.

DN: I think that the name that you made for the organization, Heart to Heart, really encapsulates the whole concept of reaching out from inside to another person to address the needs they have. I’m curious about how you’ve been able to enlist so many volunteers into your program because in our modern day and age, that’s such a challenge.


MC: When I first started, they were from the parish and committed to doing this work and found it enjoyable. There was a technique we used. We didn’t want volunteers to call directly so they called the office [Brenda Arreola, my administrative assistant and support]. That saved them from being called repetitively. So that was a safety measure put in. I think word of mouth. I did put out a flyer to other churches and congregations saying this is an opportunity to volunteer in a special way to just make a difference in other people’s lives and enrich your own life. So flyers and word of mouth really helped to get the volunteers.

DN: Then I think once people start volunteering they feel the satisfaction that comes from that.

MC: I had volunteers from over twenty five years. They stayed with the program to volunteer because it was such a wonderful thing.

RR: What was the variety of tasks that you had to assign because one of the things about volunteers is to find a task that would match their particular interest?

MC: Exactly.

RR: So tell me how the task and how you matched the volunteers to their interest.

MC: [After an assessment is made] the great need back in those days and even today is transportation. So if the person is willing to drive, I would say, “If you can just get them to the location.” For other volunteers if they could do a little more, to sit with them at a doctor’s office, because they need to hear…they’re usually nervous. So they need to have someone else take notes and then they go home. “Oh I need to take this kind of medication.” Or “I need to have someone go to the drug store and follow up with what the doctor said.” That was the little bit more that volunteers would do. But also there were volunteers who would do grocery shopping. Some would go with the older adult because they wanted to get out and this was an outing. Some said, “No, if someone would just do it that would be great.” I kind of matched it by finding the right person who wanted to do that kind of job. “Here’s this opportunity to drive; to shop; to visit; to do an errand for someone; call them; send a birthday card. It was kind of what they wanted to do. Once we went through an interview with them, they would say,” I want to do this; I’d rather do that.” We would match them up with that need.


DN: I’m also curious about how the neighborhood has changed and the needs of the seniors have changed over the twenty-eight, twenty-five years you’ve been doing this. First of all, do you see a change in the diversity of those seniors that are in need, a growth in the national and ethnic groups you are serving?

MC: There certainly is. This is a great place and marvelous place to live and to work because it is so different and it has changed in so many ways simply just having technology. So there are lots of people trying to connect onto agencies that they can have conversations through technology that they couldn’t have over the internet. So that’s one way but it doesn’t replace the human connection. But I do think that over the years it’s more diverse. I’m helping people from so many different cultures. I had to learn a lot myself. What was their custom? Kind of slowly getting to know one another. It’s a very long process. It’s just so diverse. People of all faiths and all nationalities all, racial groups. It’s just such a wonderful mix. They’re my teachers. I’ve learned so much from them.

DN: Do you think Edgewater is a special community? Could you talk about that a little bit?


MC: It’s special because it is diverse and I think welcoming. The people that I know, that are volunteers; they actually are real friends because they’re willing to provide the support and care. They’re the real treasures in the system. People have lived here a long time and they’ve found support. They know one another. It’s actually remarkable because it’s like a little town within this great city of Chicago where people are… if they are not connected, they’re welcomed. It’s a remarkable and wonderful place.

RR: Along those lines, in terms of diversity, one thing I might ask you. The distribution of age groups …when we first came here in the ‘80s there were certain neighborhoods that tended to have a lot more seniors, like Andersonville for example were predominately seniors; now it’s predominately young; Sheridan Road, a lot of seniors. Now that’s become more diversified. On Kenmore-Winthrop we see a lot of kids. We see a change in the mix of age groups and I’m wondering what you’ve seen in terms of where seniors are, where they come from, in the high rises, single family homes, the apartment houses, particularly neighborhoods. Have you seen shifts in the populations of seniors?


MC: Hm. In some ways it’s been constant. So it’s been in the high rises, the homes so that somehow they’re the same. The senior buildings that are in the neighborhood as well; they’re kind of interesting because there would be so many people from Russia. That’s a kind of interesting thing too because the people in the U. S, t. the English speaking; they are the ones that were isolated. They had support groups from Russia but the ones who were English speaking needed more support. So we found that to be an interesting phenomenon. We needed to put more people into finding the isolated people in. I think it’s still the same. I think what I find different now….well I’m becoming older too. So the generations are different. There’s a shift from, “I think I want everyone to do something for me.” To “I want to remain active. I want to volunteer.” I think that’s a different thing. “I want to find more things that I can do.” Seniors are more active, more involved, more connected than in the past. They thought maybe they should sit in a rocking chair in the past. A lot of times we say, “No, you have a lot to offer; your story and your life. You can be connected to many resources.”

RR: Eighty is the new seventy.

MC: Exactly. (Chuckles)

DN: Mary Ann, I’d like to ask you; in terms of your volunteers, do you see a change both in the broadening of ethnicity and scaling down of age. In other words, do you see more diversity in your volunteers that are reaching out toward seniors and do you see younger people getting more involved reaching out to seniors.

MC: I think they’re younger and there’s more diversity as well, different ethnic groups than in the past, which is wonderful. I’m sorry, what was the second question?

DN: I think you’ve answered it. You see the diversity in your volunteers expanding over time.


MC: I do think it’s a little more difficult to get younger people involved, “I’m so busy. I’ve got to find work and jobs.” So I still find that difficult because it seems to be the younger retired who are the ones who are available to help one another. I think that’s wonderful.

DN: I’ve noticed even with Edgewater Historical Society that it’s difficult to get young people in volunteering. I think it’s because they’re multi-tasking their lives in terms of their careers and their families. But on the other hand, we all do that. You did that, right?

MC: Absolutely.

DN: So what is there that compelled you to do this volunteer work above and beyond your family connection and your church connection.

MC: I do have to say my internal desire to honor older adults was inside me. This was a value that they need to be respected and honored and they have a life story to share. My faith led me. I mean you love God, love neighbor. Find a way to serve. That was ingrained in me to try to figure out a way to do that. That was instilled in me to try to find my way to reach out. When I found my interest in this population it just all came together.

DN: I think there are a lot of young people that continue to have faith; that go to church services but I think there’s something about our current society that focuses so much on the individual and their needs that it’s a challenge to reconnect individuals to the community and….

RR: People are connected to that little device.

MC: That’s right.

DN: So it’s a challenge I guess that we’re all facing.

RR: My granddaughter’s in town. We all went out to eat and I said, “Leave your phone at home. We’re going to talk at dinner.”

DN: Oh what a novel phenomenon! (All chuckle)

RR: She’s eighteen. It’s interesting. Neighborly? Well people have more outlets that they used to have. It used to be local church, local school, block clubs. People’s sense of neighborhood may have changed because now the neighborhoods are online and communities are online. One of the big questions I’m always concerned about is what is that going to do the sense of community. I wonder if you have any thoughts on the future of neighborhoods in terms of geography.


MC: I think there’s nothing that can replace the community of people getting to know one another…

RR: Face to face.

MC: …face to face. It’s the only way that you enrich your life with that kind of human connection. There’s no replacement. It’s just crucial. You can’t ignore that.

RR: You can’t really make friends with an avatar. (Chuckles)

MC: No you can’t. That’s right. Certainly not. That’s right. (Chuckles)

RR: As much as may think you can.

DN: Mary Ann, what advice would you give younger people?

MC: I think I would say follow your heart and your passion with what you want to do. If you can’t do it in your work, as I was lucky enough to do, at least volunteer. Give of yourself and your time because you will enrich others and you will enrich your life at the same time. That’s the most important thing I guess. Follow your dreams; follow your life to care for others because your life will be so much better because of it.

DN: I’d like to go back to the people that you have helped and Edgewater has always been very much a port of entry for people coming from other countries. I think since the ‘60s we’ve seen more and more immigrants and refugees coming. I’d like to ask you, in terms of Heart to Heart, what you see your organization doing to address the needs of immigrants and refugees specifically?


MC: Well opportunities are different, to learn about the culture. I was on Devon; we’d take a senior who wanted to go shopping. Well this was experience of food I had known nothing about. It enriched so many people. So Loyola students could come and learn about the food, about the culture, about everything. Their involvement in coming to Edgewater enriched their lives and it enriched older adults because they needed to get the food from Devon because it was their life support. And then I learned how people from all over the city could be able to get that food….

RR: You’re talking about people from Pakistan?

MC: … from India and Pakistan. That’s correct. So that was one way. We had a man from Belize who explained how hard it was coming into our cultures. I haven’t had the Hispanic population very much. So that was always new. But I’ve always had people available to help who said, “OK. Do you need a Spanish translator? Do you need someone to come in to help?” They would come in and volunteer their services to help. I’m trying to think. We’ve grown in our efforts to help the African American population. We’ve grown, I’m trying to think of different areas… different ethnic groups, German, Irish, we’ve had.

DN: Bosnian?

MC: Bosnian, yes.

DN: Burmese people?

MC: Actually we haven’t.

DN: Well I think they’re usually Baptist. They come from a Baptist background. It’s very interesting what you said in that I asked you how you addressed the needs of immigrants and refugees, and you responded to me about you as a volunteer and others have learned from that relationship. So really the need that they have is generating a need in yourself, well not so much as a need as an enrichment of your own life by that relationship.

MC: Right.

DN: I think that’s quite profound by the way.

MC: Absolutely. I think that the whole program… it wasn’t a top down program where we decide what we were going to do. It was: what do you need and then we’ll fill that need from the volunteers.

DN: That’s very different from a city agency because a city agency describes what the need is and then addresses it whereas you were starting from the local individual level.

RR: How was your program funded?


MC: We were funded through grants. We have wonderful people in the parish who put on a play and that brought in money for fundraising and it was fantastic. Donations; so many of the older adults said, “I have ten dollars. I just want to donate to your church because it’s so important to me. It’s made such a difference in my life.” So we’d get those small donations that mean so much. A couple of grants; one such grant was an interfaith grant which was wonderful because I had a call from California that said, “Could you help my mother in Edgewater? I just need to get her to her congregation.” I thought, wow! We’re broader than I thought we were; to reach out to people. So there’s all kinds of connections.

Speaking from the ground up some people said, “I just want to get together and do some work.” So we’d get together and I don’t know, do Christmas cards and different projects and that meant so much to a small group of people that said, “I’m so happy that I can come every day, well not every day, once a week I think it was, and we can do these projects.” So we spun off things. We’ve had new people come in. We’ve had other social workers come in and to be able to do new things. That’s been really helpful.

We’ve had Loyola students that were a big part of the program because they enriched it with their experience and their learning.

RR: They seem to be generally service oriented. The kids just seem to have… there’s something nice about this younger generation who have a sense of service. You have a sense of service but I don’t think that when we were younger we had that sense of service as being something we did when you were at teenager or in college. But now it seems to be part of the ethic. You mentioned that you’ve worked with all the other churches and congregations. I was wondering if you could take a few minutes and reflect on how important you think the religious institutions are to making Edgewater what it is.


MC: I think it’s crucial. I also attend the ECRA [Edgewater Community Religious Association] meetings and to be able to see the value; I think they put the foundation of the values of dignity and respect for human life; for community; for caring. They are the ones that pull it together. So for the Thanksgiving service; it’s such a remarkable experience of coming together and being one. That’s always been a very moving experience for me. So meeting together with the leaders; seeing them all heading together in the right direction; to try to care for this wonderful community; to be present to one another. I just think that they are the ones who lead the way; people in those congregations, not just the leaders.

DN: They set the example of those core values that resonates throughout the community.

MC: That’s right.

DN: I’d like to ask you about your work with the low vision group and the lending closet.


MC: That was a parishioner, actually two parishioners, who started it; a social worker [Mary Ann Barry] who as her vision decreases she brought a group together to help them. So she was reaching out and got people together who needed help to find out how they survived in their struggles, how they managing low vision or no vision. She formed this group and passed it on to another older adult and they come and they meet together and it’s wonderful support. Now they also meet together at Mather Edgewater for the luncheons they have once a month. We bring people to the luncheons and stay there and help the low vision group get the food they need, the drinks, whatever. Then be able to help them with their food a little bit; we get to know them like a family. We know each other, laughing and joking. That’s a big part of it.

RR: Do people read to them?

MC: Actually we haven’t. They’re so independent. They’re amazing but they have needed people to help with bills. They have done that.”Can someone help me with my letters, my bills?”

RR: Can I just interject? One of our board members [Brian Treglown]; one of his many volunteer efforts; he’s a reader for CHRIS radio which is a radio station for the blind or the people that have vision problems. Basically they read the newspaper every day. It’s a wonderful program and a wonderful service reading to people.

MC: It is a wonderful service. Right! So when they go to the meetings they would mention to each other, “Did you hear about this program or that?” That would be the kind of support they have. I don’t even need to say it because they support one another. “This is what I do to hear the news or whatever.”

DN: And what about the lending closet?


MC: The lending closet came about because people basically needed to find out about where to get help. “I just broke my leg and I need a little help with a walker or crutches.” One person ended up dropping something off like a walker. A light bulb just went off. We have a little basement here. We can lend them out as people need stuff. Well it grew over the years and we have walkers and wheelchairs and crutches and commodes and …

RR: You want some crutches?

MC: Sure.

RR: Really? We have crutches from when my wife had hip surgery and they’re in the basement.

MC: If you don’t know what to do with them, I’d be happy to take them.

RR: Cool.

MC: So actually people ask for equipment from all over. Orthopedics, hospitals, social workers; they all know about our lending closet. We’re the only one in the city of Chicago and we’re right here in Edgewater. It’s at Saint Gertrude’s.

DN: Maybe another model will get exported to the city.

MC: Yes, I’m hoping.

DN: Now Care for Real is another Edgewater organization that addresses the needs of different people. Do you have any relation with Care for Real?


MC: Actually when I decided how my boundaries should be set up, I matched that with Care for Real because I wanted to stay within Edgewater and not get too big. So that seemed like a good model. Stay within Edgewater and a Care for Real model in Edgewater. Also we found there were older adults who needed the food and they couldn’t get it. We needed to bring the food. So we have our volunteers doing that; getting the food and bringing it to them. It’s a great support.

DN: So you have Heart to Heart working hand to hand.

MC: (Chuckles) Exactly. We work with other organizations too. You know like Mather Edgewater, Chicagoland Methodist Senior Services, Council for Jewish Elderly; we’re always working together to see how best to help older adults.

CN: Do you also work with Pan African and Centro Romero and Refugee One at all?

MC: I haven’t that much. I have in the past a little bit. Actually Centro Romero has had an outpost at Saint Gertrude’s so we’ve worked that way, but I haven’t had too much connection with them. We’re open to them but…

RR: The Hispanic population is the largest group in Edgewater yet they’ve pretty much stayed to themselves. It’s a challenge we all have, all the community groups, is to draw them into the community and making them feel comfortable in the community. I’m wondering if you have any recommendations for what Edgewater could do to reach out to this growing, very significant Hispanic population.


MC: I think what we have to do is find the leadership because there are so many different cultures that are trying to care for one another. Trying to have someone from the outside reach out to them is a little bit intimidating. So I think if we go to the leadership like Centro Romero and find out what would be the best way to reach out to them, I think that would be the best way to start off; the way to find the best entry to provide support and help.

RR: Yes.

DN: Do you have any other questions Bob?

RR: No. She’s fabulous. She’s pre-empted all my questions with all this great stuff. (Everyone chuckles.)

DN: Mary Ann, This is your story. We’ve been asking you a lot of questions. Is there anything else you’d like to add to this interview or say at this particular time? We can always come back and interview you later of course. But for right now is there anything you feel you’ve left out or you would like to say?

MC: I think I’ve probably said this but … I would just like to re-iterate that this is a fabulous place to live and a fabulous place to work or volunteer so I’m hoping that people who see this will understand that by volunteering you make your life and others richer. Everyone is better off when you volunteer and get involved in the community. Finally,

I wish to express my sincere thanks to Fr. Dominick Grassi at St. Gertrude Parish for his continuing support of Heart to Heart.

DN: Thank you so much Mary Ann.