ISU partner community organizations Breakthrough supporting residents during COVID-19 – News


“Pivot” has been the defining action word as non-profit organizations, throughout the city of Chicago, have found new ways to continue serving community members in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19).  Three miles apart, Latinos Progresando and Breakthrough, both partners with ISU’s National Center for Urban Education through the Chicago Teacher Education Pipeline (CTEP), have demonstrated exemplary models of sustaining and shifting services in order to best support their communities.  In doing so, both organizations followed city and state recommended guidelines, prioritizing health and safety, as they creatively responded to crucial community needs.

Breakthrough is a community-based organization that pivoted to provide services in new and creative ways to families living in East Garfield Park (EGP).  Breakthrough has been in operation for 30 years. It began on the northside, offering programs to support homeless adults. In 2000, it expanded to the west side, opening a homeless women’s shelter, and initiating education and youth development activities.  Organizational growth continued in response to community needs: development of a men’s center, behavioral health programming, opening a Fresh Market facility, and building the FamilyPlex for expanded youth development programs, health services, and a café!

Because so many of Breakthough’s services are offered in-person, when the COVID-19 lockdown began, 80 percent of its programs had to be put on hold. The shelters and food distribution continued, as they were considered essential services for the community.  The men’s and women’s shelters adjusted protocols and rearranged sleeping quarters to allow for more space between individuals. Staff were vigilant regarding virus protection.

Breakthrough staff sends students home with packed meals for their families.

Most of the loyal volunteers running the Fresh Market were older community residents. They were asked to stay at home in order to keep healthy.  Staff graciously picked up shifts at the pantry, which was much needed, to accommodate the 25 percent increase in the demand for food. In the first months, people were stocking up- afraid of the unknown future. Staff unloaded donations from the Greater Food Depository trucks, organized food, stocked shelves, and bagged groceries. No longer safe for residents to congregate indoors in the Fresh Market space while selecting their own food, an adjustment was made so that bags of groceries could be offered to community members when they stopped by, quickly and efficiently. It is only more recently that the demand for food is lessening.

In addition to the Fresh Market, Breakthrough offered curbside pick-up of donated meals.

Inspiration kitchen, Turkey Chop, and many other local restaurants donated meals, as did other community partners.  Families were informed that curbside meals were available, May-July, twice a week, for as long as the donated food lasted.  This was a greatly appreciated service to the community that highlighted the strong partnerships Breakthrough has been developing for decades. 

Breakthrough partners with local restaurant Turkey Chop to provide meals for families.

A new model was created for Breakthrough’s family care programs, providing support through a blend of virtual and in-person services for 60 youth (prioritizing children of essential workers).  The Beginners program, for pre-school children, remained virtual from March to June. Parents were offered daily zoom sessions with teachers, along with weekly care packages that teachers dropped off at each family’s home to the delight of the kids. These were thematically based and included a variety of activities that were the focus of the daily zoom calls.

In addition to adjusting for the immediate short-term, during the months of “shelter in place,” Breakthrough staff planned for how best to expand services, whenever restrictions eased.  At the end of June, when Phase 4 of the Mayor’s plan was launched, Breakthrough was prepared with an appropriate plan and re-opened its doors to 60 school age children for education assistance, again prioritizing local west side children of essential workers. Temperatures were taken as youth entered the building.  They were divided into groups of 10 per classroom, with everyone wearing masks and remaining in their room throughout the day. During lunch there was no mingling between youth in different rooms and food was prepared and brought upstairs to classrooms. Similarly, youth remained in their small groups for recreation time when they used the gym. Staff also made use of the nearby park for outdoor recreation.

During the summer, staff surveyed families about their wishes for the academic year, anticipating the likelihood that when school started up again it would continue to be virtual. Many parents living in the EGP community work second and third shifts.  Parents asked for support from Breakthrough.  Survey responses guided staff in creating a robust E-learning program for 60 students to accommodate this need.  From 8:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m., youth living on the west side come to Breakthrough with their Chromebook in hand (or used one provided if needed). 10 students in each room receive support from staff and volunteers.  The same lunch and gym plan from the summer continued.   

When the “E-learning” youth go home, other students from two private schools on the westside arrive by bus to Breakthrough for homework assistance, continuing a partnership of service from pre-pandemic days.

In addition to the success of the e-learning program, pre-K children in the beginners program are now happily back in the building, 10 per classroom. Teachers state that they are intensely focused on sanitizing “all the time, everywhere” while trying to keep contact between kids to a minimum.

Much to the sadness of those who regularly visited Breakthrough’s Bridge Café, it remains closed—however, the expectation is that it will open soon. The fitness center re-opened serving five people at a time.  The medical clinic also re-opened on Sept 8, having been closed all summer.  Patients had been able to receive services at the main location in North Lawndale which stayed open during summer, but patients now appreciate being able to return to Breakthrough’s familiar and more convenient clinic location.

Illinois State University’s National Center for Urban Education is proud to partner with community-based organizations that stand ready to pivot to support their neighborhoods whatever comes.

Click here for more on Latinos Progresando.



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