For nearly 150 years, Erie Neighborhood House has been an institution for Chicago’s immigrant families. Originally founded as a settlement house to help Dutch immigrants in the West Town neighborhood, the organization continues to provide wraparound services to the area’s ever-changing population.
In more recent times, Erie House has focused a lot of its programming on holistic health and wellness outreach for Latinx families. A 2017 study done by the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy at the University of Illinois Chicago revealed that Latinx neighborhoods had higher rates of individuals without health insurance, citing language and literacy, difficult application processes and confusing eligibility requirements as barriers that prevent obtaining insurance and seeking health care.
To address this challenge, Erie House provides a spectrum of health and wellness services for individuals and families, such as Zumba classes, childhood education about healthy food choices and a family cooking class titled “Comprando Rico y Sano”—buying delicious and healthy.
“The Latinx community is disproportionately impacted by obesity, diabetes and other health disparities,” says Kirsten Chernawsky, the organization’s executive director. “At Erie House, we work with our participants to help change that narrative and make sure that they have access to services.”
Erie House provides youth wellness programming in the fall, spring and summer with 10 weekly sessions about nutrition and physical activity. The sessions are divided by age groups: one for toddlers and preschoolers ages 2 to 5, one for children ages 8 to 12 and a youth program for ages 12 to 16. Through this model the organization hopes to create a domino effect across generations and communities.
“Kids get to bring home what they’ve learned and share it with their family and friends and then create this holistic type of programming, where we have the children telling their older siblings, who tell their parents, who tell their other family members, who spread it in their community,” says Eleni Kaldis, health and leadership program coordinator.
Thanks to consecutive grants from The Chicago Community Trust’s Unity Fund between 2016 and 2018, Erie House has been able to provide their health and wellness programming to more than 450 youth and 1,000 adults.
“The Unity Fund really developed lifelong learners at Erie House,” Kaldis says. “That wouldn’t be possible without funding to have these kinds of programs, to develop these materials and provide what kids really enjoy learning about.”
“Kids bring home what they’ve learned and share it with their family and friends and then create this holistic type of programming, where we have the children telling their older siblings, who tell their parents, who tell their other family members, who spread it in their community.”
Erie House notes that increased parent participation is also part of the organization’s successful program expansion. According to Kaldis, more families are hosting events and dinners that demonstrate how healthy living complements the Latinx community’s existing recipes, cooking methods and ways of celebrating with food.
But even more rewarding is seeing former youth program participants retain the education and skills they learned at Erie House and continue to share when they have families of their own.
“It is exciting when those parents who’ve grown up in Erie [House] bring their kids back because of how much they enjoyed our programming,” says Kaldis. “Our families and our community are proof that healthy living is very realistic for every community and every socioeconomic status.”