"You can be whoever you want to be, no matter what." JoAnn Avery.
Sitting in the library at Family Focus Evanston at 2010 Dewey on Monday, JoAnn Avery tears up when she tells me how, as a little girl, she watched the disrespectful way a case worker treated her mother when she came to do a home visit--a requirement--because her young mom was raising four children on her own, on public aid. It was this experience--and a college counselor who told her she wouldn't make it in college and that she should settle for being a secretary instead--that motivated Ms. JoAnn (as everyone knows her) to pursue social work in her quest to treat families with dignity. She's been committed to that mission ever since. Last Sunday, the community--current and former students, parents, colleagues, and sorors--returned that respect (and lots of love) with a festive celebration at a jam-packed Family Focus Evanston Theatre marking Avery's birthday and her 37 years of service at the organization. They drummed, sang, danced, offered speeches and poems, enjoyed hors d'oeuvres and wine, and a huge birthday cake. In addition, last week, Mayor Steve Hagerty proclaimed the day--May 19--JoAnne Avery Day in Evanston.
JoAnn and I are sitting in the Family Focus Evanston library the morning after the event, talking about JoAnn's life and work.
"As a child, I'm looking at this lady talk to my mom like that," Avery remembers, "And I vowed then to not treat people without dignity. To not treat people like they're nothing just because they don't have anything. And that's what I do for kids. I treat them with respect." With an undergraduate degree from Kendall College and a Masters in Human Services from the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, Avery has spent the past almost four decades serving, inspiring, encouraging, and educating the children, families, and community in Evanston's fifth ward who come to Family Focus in its building at 2010 Dewey Ave. Sometimes, says Avery, we have something to do with our situations, but a lot of times we don't. "My mom didn’t have anything to do with being on public aid," she says. "That was just the situation she was put in. Raising four kids by herself. So everybody who comes through this door, I treat with respect."
Here are excerpts from our conversation. You can watch the whole interview--and enjoy snippets from Sunday's celebration--in the video below. DE: Yesterday when the room was packed with young kids, and older people who were in your program, what do you think it was, what have you given them, that made them so loyal and have so much love for you? JA: I was myself. I treated all of them as though they were my own. They weren’t just kids coming to the center. They were **my** kids. Back then, I didn’t have my daughter, but I knew how I wanted to be as a parent and I really put myself in the parent role. Not taking away from the parent, but while they were here for three hours, they were my kids, and I treated them as such.
DE: What are some of the things you've done here at Family Focus? JA: A long time ago, we used to having a clothing room here. It wasn’t a room, it was in the hallway. Who wants to come and pick out clothes for their family when everyone can see them? That’s why the clothing room is now downstairs, where you can go with dignity and get things and not feel embarrassed. Some people come here. They say, 'I don’t want my kids to see me, can I come at night? I don’t want them to know that we got hand-me-down clothes.' Yes, you can do that! And the food pantry. I wait here at night and ask Mr. Mike, 'Can you open up so so-and-so can go and get food?' DE: Tell me some of the other things you’ve done ... JA: I have a passion for girls. I would love to have a leadership school for girls. I keep having that on my bucket list, but I’m not making any attempts to get there. I introduced the after-school program--primary prevention. Teen moms would come here and that’s how primary prevention started. Prevention is the key. DE: What kinds of things do you think girls need? JA: I provide leadership for them. Confidence, body image. Because they’re dealing with those things. And some of the parents don’t know how to deal with those things. They come to me and say, 'How can I help my daughter with feeling good about who she is?' That’s my main thing: making them feel good about who they are. Giving them the tools to feel good about who they are. I had one girl years ago who was always fighting, didn’t want to go to class. Then she became prom queen, graduated, got her Masters and her PhD. And I was so in awe. She was always defiant. She wrote me a letter the other day. She thanked me for staying on top of her, for being in her life, for being a second mom. It brought tears to my eyes. This was a child--I didn’t know if she was going to make it.
DE: What about kids who you lost? JA: I said the other day that I wouldn’t change anything from the past, but I would have changed that. I’ve been to a lot of funerals. Senseless funerals, and some health-related funerals. Those touched me. I stood last night for them too. Because I wish they were here. That’s the sad part. I have a young lady, she was there last night—her mom was 16—her mom died giving birth to her. That was our first tragedy. And there was Richland. She committed suicide. She went to Haven, but she lived on Howard Street. I’ll never forget it, because it was when we were having our fashion and talent show. She called, and I called her back, but it was too late. She was 12. It hit the community hard. The community rallied, paid for her funeral. It was hard to the core. She hung herself with her book bag. I was devastated. So devastated. It still hurts. DE: And kids who’ve been lost to gun violence? JA: One of the brothers of one gun-violence victim was here last night and sang in the choir. I think of all the youth that have come to this building, and to die such a senseless death. When you have an illness, you know you can’t stop that. But gunfire ... [she shakes her head]. DE: How have things changed since you started here? JA: I look at the houses now and who’s moving in and driving our families out. Wesley and Jackson have changed so much. And my families lived on that block. But they sold their homes. That’s an issue for me. Also, I had a little boy come to me two weeks ago. He said one of the boys at school called him a [n—]. Where did he get that? How did he know that in third grade and say that word to another person? I don't blame the child, but his parents who are using this word? We still have that kind of thing happening! I mean he was hurt. He came here crying and I had to call his mom because he didn’t want to take to anyone other than his mother. Because it hurt him. Because that word is not allowed. At all!
DE: I know you said you treat everybody like your children, but what does that mean? JA: I give them the same tools I would give my daughter. I help them with college applications, filling them out. Scholarships. I talk to them like they’re my kids. Girls are in relationships they shouldn’t be in, and they talk to me about it. A lot of times I have to deal with boyfriend things. One conversation was about--one of the girls wanted to have intercourse--but I’m saying, 'You ‘re not ready for that. You’re a junior in high school.' And she thanked me. She said,' I couldn’t talk to my mom.' They tell me things that I can’t believe that they tell me. They trust me. All the kids I work with are eventually going to be adults. And they’re going to go on and do something. But I want them to be aware now. So they can go back and say, 'I want to thank Ms. JoAnn for opening my eyes at a young age.' Things like voting. Filling out scholarship papers. We do that here. I do mock interviews with them. DE: What are your hours? JA: I have none. Everybody has my cell phone number. I want them to know you can call me any time you want.
DE: Why is Family Focus Evanston as a program, and as a building, so important? [The building is currently in danger of being sold.] JA: It's important for this community. It’s important that the kids have a strategic place to come where school buses will drop them off. Where it’s safe. That they can get the tools they need here. It’s so important that the building stays here, that it has viable programs here. Not just us, because this is a social service building. Do you know schools do their conferences here? Because it’s easy for the parents. It’s a safe place. It’s a neutral territory. Parents don’t feel welcome coming to [their children's] school. The reason they [started having conferences here] is because they weren’t getting parents to the schools. But they come here. I’m not saying the schools are judgmental, but the parents had problems when **they** went to school. So they don’t feel like they should go there. I think about the situation we’re in, where they say they’ll find a place for us. Well, where can you go where all the kids can come to, where the buses let them off right here? There’s no place. Downtown Evanston? Where? There’s no other location for Family Focus. It has to be here. And I hope people realize how important it is. DE: So, to go back, you talked about how social workers treated your mom with so much disrespect. Your mom was young and on public aid. What do you think it was that got you out of that situation? JA: My mom was born and raised in Clarksdale, Mississippi. She only went to 10h grade. And she always spoke in the house about education. She wanted us to get a good education because she didn’t. And she didn’t want any of us to be in the situation she was in. So I was determined. And I wanted to be in a position to help people not to be degraded. My grandmother died early, at 35. My mom got to Chicago because she met my dad. He's from Florida but he had family here, so she came. DE: And then he left? JA: Yes he went back to Miami. He passed last March. I didn’t have a relationship with my dad till I was 17. I was determined to find my father. My maiden name is McKire, which is an unusual name. So I found my grandfather and then they put me in touch. I said one thing I want for graduation is to meet my father. I went to Miami. I didn’t know who I was looking for, but at the airport, somehow we knew each other. And that was the first time I met him. And it was amazing. I kept in touch with him, I went to Miami for weekends. He was a mechanic. He was my dad and I wanted a relationship with him. DE: Your work is your passion.
JA: My passion. I’m going to do this till I can’t do it anymore. And I want kids to know, and parents, that they can count on me. That’s important. My word, my integrity is so important to me.