The Child Advocate

Interview with Arlene Happach

At the Children’s Home + Aid Offices Downtown Chicago

How she’s changing the world: Arlene is the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Children’s Home + Aid where she is responsible for statewide programming in child welfare, early childhood and clinical and community services. Arlene has extensive experience working in child welfare and enjoys improving and implementing effective programming for youth and families. In 2015 alone, Children’s Home + Aid served over 40,000 children and families in Illinois.

In other words, there are many children who need services like counseling, early childhood services, adoption services, etc. for a variety of different reasons. It’s Arlene’s job to make sure the help and care offered through Children’s Home + Aid makes a difference in the lives of these children.

Arlene’s calming presence is welcoming. When I met her at the downtown offices of Children’s Home + Aid, she walked me through her 30 years of working in this field. She is focused and determined. She explained to me that as early as undergrad, she knew she wanted to work for children in need; that the passion has never left her.

“A lot of the work we do is sad, but it is such a privilege to me. Children are vulnerable, they need advocates and they need people to help. Every child deserves the best possible future and it makes me so happy to do the work I do.”

I was especially excited about the opportunity to meet Arlene because advocating for vulnerable children has a special place in my heart.

Arlene’s experience is extensive and her commitment to working for the betterment of the lives of children is unwavering. She has several degrees: a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a master’s degree in clinical psychology and a MBA all from Bradley University.

“All of my experiences led me to my dream job,” she said about being a leader in organizations and agencies that promote child welfare.

Q: Tell me about a moment where you were proud of the work you accomplished.

A: In Milwaukee, I was the director of the state-run Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare for five years. When I began the position, the department was in a lawsuit for not providing quality care to children in welfare. There were 18 benchmarks that we needed to meet as a department to better our standing and to get out of the lawsuit. By the time I arrived, the Bureau had settled many of the benchmarks but were stuck in passing the most difficult efforts. In one year, I settled one of the most difficult benchmarks we needed to pass and the second year we were able to get out of it. It was the most dramatic systemic change.

An article by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal noted the impactful leadership Arlene brought with her: “the percentage of Milwaukee County children that suffered abuse or neglect while in out-of-home-care was 0.40%,” when Arlene began her work as the director of the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare. “It was slashed to 0.15% by 2013.”

“Also under her leadership, the percentage of children in out-of-home care went down. The percentage of children experiencing timely reunification with their parents or caregivers went up.”

Arlene is a fierce child advocate who knows what she is doing.

Q: How were you able to create such drastic change?

“I put a lot of things into place. I hired nurses for our clinics, I created a mental screening tool, I changed the qualifications for investigators to be more thorough, I put in a visitation coaching system for parents and children, I implemented permanency consultations, I revamped our contracting system and I put a series of incentives in place for getting kids to permanency and safety. Things I knew would help create safe spaces for children.”

Q: What piece of advice would you give to a young professional?

A: “I would say what I say to my own son: you have to give everything a chance. Sometimes you may not get your dream job on the first try but there’s always something to learn, there are always skills to develop, and moments to be shared with others around you. You may not like what you’re doing, but find something you can get better at and work on that, because when your dream job comes along, you’ll be equipped with the tools necessary to succeed.

Q: What reading would you recommend for people in your field?

A: “Ghosts from the nursery,” by by Robin Karr-Morse.

“This book talks about the first three years of life, including pre-natal, and how crucial they are to development,” Arlene explained. “I recommend it to anyone in the field.”

You can find research, read inspiring stories and find out more about the work Arlene is doing at the Children’s Home + Aid’s website.


The Global Thinker (with an educational flair)

Interview with Allen Kenneth Schaidle

Over an early morning phone call (Allen lives in Iraq!)

How he’s making a difference in the world: Allen believes education is the gateway to having a better life and access something everyone should possess. His impressive experiences have led him around the world where he currently serves as the Director of Student Services at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS).

Allen’s energy is contagious. His thoughts on the world are well constructed yet, you can tell, when speaking with him, he is constantly questioning his beliefs so as to never settle in his way of thinking.

While his path thus far seems planned and intentional, Allen would argue the opposite. He remained open to possibilities and listened to those around him to make decisions about his education. He holds three degrees:

  • Bachelor’s degree in Secondary Education and Teaching from the University of Kansas
  • Master’s degree in International Education Development focusing on Higher Post-Secondary Education from Columbia University in New York
  • Master’s degree in Higher Education from the University of Oxford

“I found during my undergrad I was interested in education, how it overlaps with sociology, economics, history, cultures, and generally how it can connect all of us,” Allen explained to me.

That interest led him to obtain a master’s degree in Education, and that experience led him to research opportunities, fellowship opportunities a second master’s degree. Because of his cross-cultural experiences and studies, he has been interviewed an insane amount of times, by both in print and online platforms, including The New York Times, MSNBC and several universities. It’s seriously impressive. You can check out all of the cool things he’s done here.

Currently, in his role at AUIS he tackles problems from helping refugee students acclimate to the University, to supporting the study abroad programs, to handling cultural conflicts on campus.

“I hope to continue my work abroad and back stateside, experiencing and learning all I can.” Allen said. “In my opinion, the biggest hurdle Americans face right now is perspective.

“People don’t realize how you see the world is not how the person next to you sees the world.”

Exposing myself to diversity teaches me how people see the world very differently. These experiences I have had valuable and I would like to bring them to the U.S. to advance educational experiences in the USA.”

Q: Allen. Share your wisdom with us. What is some advice you have to people who are pursing their passions/working towards creating a more just world?

A: Find what lights your fire. I wake up every day excited I get to go to work. I’m the happiest when I see others succeed. You need to find that excitement in your life.

Also, if you want to be successful, you have to put in the time. If people come into work at 10 AM, you have to come in at 9 AM. Once you find what gets you excited, invest! Read about it all the time, network all the time, and meet the people who are in your field. You have to put in the effort others won’t.

Everyday is a cycle of learning, action, and reflection. I’m a big fan of sitting down and reflecting. What happened today? How does this connect to my long-term goals? How did my privilege come up in my conversations? Did I use my privilege to empower others or worse, suppress?

“Read everything you can get your hands on. If you’re not reading, you’re doing it wrong.”

Go to the extra lecture, read, have an honest support network. Without my family and friends, I would fail.

Cut out social media.

Most importantly, be stupidly curious. I still feel like I’m as curious as my 4 years old self. I still become engrossed with topics and research them to death. But it’s what constantly keeps my perspective growing.

Q: What books/reading material do you recommend?

A: Lecture by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College, “This is Water.”

“Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America,” Cornell West

“Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society,” by Raymond Williams

“Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives,” by Peter Orner

“A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education,” by David Labaree

Poetry is also important. It’s the best way to sharpen your critical thinking skills. Some of my favorite poets include:

Billy Collins

Edgar Allen Poe

Sharon Olds

Allen Ginsburg. His poem, “America,” particularly resonates with me lately.

Read more about Allen on his website.


The Family Helper

Interview with Vicky Joseph

at the Families Helping Families Learning Resource Center in Naperville, IL.

How she is making a difference in the world: Vicky Jospeh started an organization called Families Helping Families 23 years ago. The organization provides homeless families in DuPage County a holistic approach to getting back on their feet. It is entirely volunteer run with no overhead costs. Every single donation, monetary or otherwise, goes towards supporting families in need.

Vicky’s oldest daughter, Lindsay, was our favorite (and best) babysitter growing up. My earliest memory volunteering was at the annual Families Helping Families walk that used to be the organization’s fundraising event for the year. Having the Joseph family in my life at such a young age was instrumental in forming my early thoughts on social justice. Though I had no idea what “social justice” meant as a seven year old, I began learning that there were people in this world who, to no fault of their own, were less lucky than I was. Mrs. Joseph was, and continues to be, an example to many that if you see a need to help others in this world, you can do something about it.

I met with Vicky, or Mrs. Joseph as I forever will call her, at the Families Helping Families Learning Resource Center in Naperville. The center is on the first floor of a large apartment building that is home to several different single mothers and their children in the Families Helping Families program. Children’s drawings were displayed on the walls and the room was welcoming. Towards the back, there was a room full of donations and a large closet that contained new donated items for clients to choose from as they needed.

“These are the items you can’t purchase with food stamps,” Mrs. Joseph explained to me.

Mrs. Joseph introduced me to two other people she was meeting with. One man, who had just dropped off a check to her, was inquiring about other ways in which he could support Families Helping Families. Mrs. Joseph then introduced me to the second person she was meting with as one of “our clients.”

“She will graduate with her degree in nursing next week!” Mrs. Joseph was beaming.

“I’m so ready do be done,” the client explained. “I have a meeting with my mentors next week and I would love for you to be there, Vicky. You’re my favorite person in the world, after all.”

“Of course I’ll be there,” Mrs. Joseph said. “We need to talk about your exit strategy!”

The two went back and fourth and I was reminded of what a beautiful woman Mrs. Joseph is. She is infinitely dedicated to helping people in need. Her love and passion for the work she does knows no limits. She is constantly trying to better herself for others and her energy is inspiring.

Q: How did Families Helping Families start?

A: When my children were little, I was looking for a way to give back to the community. It was around the holidays so we decided to “adopt a family” and purchase holiday gifts for them. I drove over to this woman’s home to deliver the gifts we had purchased for her and quickly realized she needed much more than gifts. It made me so sad to see. As soon as I got home, I started researching programs in the area that were supporting homeless families. I found a few but many programs simply offered housing and only for a short period of time. That didn’t seem right to me.

I came across Bridge Communities and asked them if I could operate under them. I told them we would need housing for at least two years so that the care provider could get some sort of degree from College of DuPage.

“My argument was: How are you supposed to make a living if you’re not educated? You can’t just give people an apartment, you have to help them along their journey.”

Bridge Communities agreed. We had a goal of supporting one single mother and her children for a year while she went back to school. The kids and I made flyers at home, put on our rollerblades and placed the flyers around the neighborhood. We quickly raised $8,000 and have been supporting families ever since.

Q: How is Families Helping Families structured?

A: Our clients go through a screening process through caseworkers at Bridge Communities. Once it seems like a good fit, the mom signs a contract with Families Helping Families adhering to the rules of the program. Families have specific goals they want to accomplish during their time with us like completion of a degree or trade school and a job with higher wages. Families are typically in the program for two years and the goal is to achieve self-sufficiency through education.

Each family has two mentors assigned to them. These mentors are on-call and meet with our clients weekly. Mentors will be there for these families to help set goals, if a family’s car breaks down, or if they just need someone to talk to.

All of our clients have been single mothers and their children. Most of them come from poverty and/or abusive situations.

Families Helping Families operations under Bridge Community, they’re our umbrella organization.  In addition to the actual apartments, our clients get tremendous services from Bridge such as tutoring, counseling, employment services, children’s services, and more.

Q: What surprised you most about starting Families Helping Families?

A: People’s generosity. I really think people are generous. When Families Helping Families first started, I would come home to donations in my mailbox. People in the neighborhood started forming committees for us and finding ways they could help. The funding has always come. It’s never been an issue.

“I really think it’s human nature to want to help others. When you have your needs met, our next human desire is to make a difference.”

Q: Are there every any moments where you question why you’re doing what you’re doing or if this is all worth it?

A: Oh every week!

“The hardest part has always been working with systemic poverty and abuse and the victims of abuse. It effects the way you look at the world. It’s hard to change someone’s thoughts or perspective after they have been in these kinds of situations for so long.”

Sometimes, families will leave us after a short period of time. There are a lot of rules here that the mothers have to follow and it’s not for everyone. It’s hard to see someone go.

Q: What are the moments that sustain you?

A: Of course it’s my relationships with the clients. And the mentors that work with us.

I recently ran into a woman who had left the program only after a few months. We were so sad to see her go. I asked her how she was doing and she responded immediately that even though she hated having to implement a budget, everyday she used the tools we taught her and because of it her finances were ok. It made me so happy because she was still able to take away something from the program and use it for her benefit.

If every woman that has gone through this, comes out in a little better place than before, then I’ve done my job. We can’t have expectations that everyone will come out and be a homeowner because that’s not reality. We have to look incrementally at success, that’s what I keep telling my mentors.

“The end result may not look like what we wanted to look like but that’s OK, and we still have to try.”

To me, what success looks like is financial security. If your car breaks down and you don’t have to decide between paying rent and fixing your car, that’s success.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who is pursing their passions?

A: 1) What stops people in their tracks is when they look at big problems and get overwhelmed. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the enormity of these issues. You can’t fix poverty. You won’t! But you can fix micro issues within this macro issue. I can help one family.

2) Then you can decide: Am I going to help a lot of people a little, like a food pantry, or am I going to help a little amount of people a lot, like we do. Decide which person you are and go for it.

Q: Books that have inspired you lately?

A: Nickel and Dimed On (NOT) Getting by in America” by Barbara Ehrenreich

I think should be required for everyone to read in this country.

“Starting Strong: A Mentoring Fable” by Lois J. Zachary and Lory A. Fischler


The Dedicated Teacher

Interview with Megan McWeeney

over iced coffee in West Loop, Chicago, IL.

How she is making a difference in the world: Megan has been a teacher in the Chicago Public School system for seven years. She is part of a team that works with underperforming schools within CPS network to turn them around until they are high-achieving.

Megan was put in touch with me through more dear friends of mine, Joe McWeeney and Catie Collins. (Thank you, you two for dating, and thanks, Joe, for having an awesome older sister.)

Megan’s energy is contagious and her loyalty to working with an underserved population is inspiring. Though she has now been teaching for several years, her career path didn’t start out in education.

After getting accepted to the University of Michigan, she expressed interest in studying education.

“I had always wanted to be a teacher but before freshman year, my family urged me to pick a different major thinking I could pursue something more lucrative.” Megan said.

She graduated with a degree in communications and held impressive internships like working in the Gucci showroom in New York City and at B96 Radio Station in Chicago. After working at a marketing agency for several months post-graduation, her desire to be a teacher was still present and she decided to listen to her inner voice.

“I’ve always wanted to work with low income and underserved kids.”

“I knew I could do something else like sales, and be successful, and make a lot more money but I also knew it wouldn’t be fulfilling.”

She applied to National Lewis University and obtained her master’s degree in education. That fall she began teaching and hasn’t looked back.

Megan’s career change isn’t surprising. Her fierce desire to serve others extends beyond the classroom. In high school and college she was always involved with service opportunities: from spending time at the Boys and Girls Club of Waukeegan to using her free-time to tutor children at inner-city schools in Detroit, from spending a summer teaching in Africa to visiting Haiti more than seven times post-earthquake at an orphanage, it is clear where Megan’s heart lies.

Q: Megan, who instilled in you this desire to serve others?

A: I’m not sure where it comes from! So much of my time has been spent volunteering and I think it’s just something that won’t ever leave. My parents are very generous and very loving people but they’re not overly involved in service or volunteering. They just instilled in me compassion for other people.

Q: Tell me more about being a teacher.

A: I’ve taught 1st grade since I started teaching six years ago. This year, I’ll teach 2nd grade subjects so I’ll be able to see all of my kids that I just had last year which is so exciting. I’ve been teaching at my current school for four years now. My first year was when I was brought in as part of the ‘turn around team.’ CPS has different ratings for how schools are performing. When I first started at this school it had the lowest score, now it has the highest.

Q: What are some challenges you face as a teacher and some successes?

A: Sometimes kids can just be hard to reach. How do you get a kid who doesn’t care at all about school, to care? You just try, as best as you can, to reach as many kids as you can throughout the year. On the flip-side, there are always kids you have strong connections with as well as little victories. I’ve had kids that started off not knowing how to read then I witness them reading by themselves for the first time!

Q: What are some tips/advice you have to those trying to pursue their passions or pursuing teaching specifically?

A:  1. It’s important to set time aside for yourself. Sometimes this job, or jobs in general, can consume you. You have to know when to turn it off. Being a teacher is great as far as time off goes. When I do have time off I try to take advantage of it like traveling or spending time with friends.

2. Establish boundaries. 

3. Stay on top of your workload. It’s easy to fall behind, especially with being a teacher. I have time everyday to prepare for the next and I always make sure to take advantage of it.

4. Soak up the rewarding moments. When you see a success, no matter how big or small, it’s a victory. It’s really fun to help a child build up their confidence.


Learn more about the Chicago Public School system here.


The Community Builder

Interview with Ryan Burton

over a phone call in the evening.

How he’s making a difference in the world: Ryan is a fellow at a prestigious foundation in Colorado Springs that allocates funds to organizations and offering community outreach programs that directly benefit the the people of Colorado. Ryan is a civic leader and a community builder.

Conor Taft helping me out, again, with his wonderful network of people! Conor and Ryan went to undergrad together and Conor thought Ryan would be the perfect person for me to get connected with–he was right!

Q: Ryan, what does it mean to be a civic leader and community builder?

A: To me, it means working with and not for individuals and communities to make a positive change. That’s a really important piece of it—that in order to create change it takes a community as a whole. Civic leaders help to facilitate that change. One example could mean bringing different stakeholders (corporate, nonprofit, etc.) together to move forward in a process or a cause.

Ryan grew up in Colorado Springs and made his way to the University of Kansas for his undergraduate degree in English and political science. He then completed a year of service through City Year where he worked at an urban middle school in Boston.

He found himself next at Washington University in St. Louis where he obtained his Masters in Social Work with a focus in urban education and management.

Wanting to continue his professional and leadership skills brought him back to Colorado Springs where he now works to better his community.

His resume is impressive and his experiences many but speaking with Ryan is like speaking to a long-time friend. His passion for giving back and intellectual remarks exude with kindness. While he is already making a difference in the world, I have a feeling Ryan’s name will be associated with even bigger, positive differences in the future.

Q: Tell me more about your current role at the Foundation!

A: After graduating with my masters, I wanted to continue developing my professional and leadership skills. I knew of a foundation in Colorado Springs that combined leadership and professional growth all while giving back to the community. We work to promote the well-being of Colorado citizens by allocating grant dollars to nonprofit organizations and hosting community outreach programs. I direct and staff some of our programs and I support our grant making efforts in the Denver area.

I’m lucky I’ve gotten to experience our work come to life. I love conducting site visits to the places that have received grants to see the impact of the Foundation’s dollars. It’s really cool to be a part of a solution that brings people together to tackle complex issues

Q: How has your education led you to the work you currently do?

A: My education was very multidisciplinary, which has let me integrate different fields of study. That directly translates to my job, as I’m constantly relying on what I learned through my liberal arts education and my professional social work degree. I’ve learned that change happens at a cross-section of people and ideas coming together.

Q: Ryan, why is giving back important to you?

A: I think on a broad scale, we all have a life to live and, above all, I want to lead a meaningful life. I recognized in myself that when I was being true and authentic, I was caring for and about people. I’m obsessed with people’s well-being.

“My professional and personal values are really intertwined and reflect who I am as a person. I like that about my job.”

Q: What does your dream job look like?

A: I think the thing is I couldn’t tell you what my dream job is—it’s something I’ve realized as I’ve gotten older. I’m a community driven person. You can have a fulfilling life in a number of different jobs and skills, but for me, as long as I feel a sense of connection to community, then I’ll feel happy.

I’m open to life taking me in unexpected places. If I stay true to myself and follow my passions, I’ll know my dream job when I see it.

Q: What advice you would give to others who want to live out their passions?

A:    1. Give yourself the space to reflect. I reflect on a daily basis. Having the time to process and be alone with my thoughts has been really valuable. I can focus on what is meaningful.

2. Give yourself the freedom to make mistakes and fail.

3. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that some people feel guilty for not following a certain path or career. They think there is a path they should follow. At the end of the day, you have to define success and happiness on your own terms.

4. Don’t waste your time comparing yourself to others.

5. Unplug! Unplugging is really big. Plan space and time to get back to what is simple and important in this world.

Q: What are some books that have inspired you?

A: “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho

“The Fault In Our Stars” by John Green

“Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance

“Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson

“The Republic” by Plato


The Passionate People Person

Interview with Philip Ozorkiewicz

over a phone call in the afternoon.

How he’s making a difference in the world: Philip works directly with adults and children on their personal growth and development.

I was put in touch with Philip by a dear friend of mine, Conor Taft. (Thanks, Conor!) Philip is someone who has known what his passion is his whole life: work with people, be outdoors and help improve the world around him. Philip currently works as the Director of Client Relations for Fulcrum Adventures.

“I love my job because I get to live out my passion: working with a variety of different people on their personal development.”

Fulcrom Adventures facilitates team building and leadership development experiences for individuals and organizations around the world. Their intentional activities ranging from equine therapy, wilderness retreats and ropes courses all foster healing, health and growth.

“Every program we host has at least one person who walks away saying ‘wow, that is going to change my life.'” Philip said. “By addressing and changing micro-level issues, macro level effects will transpire.”

Philip also has an innovative side project he co-founded four years ago, OJOS Eyewear, a sustainable eyewear company. For every pair of sunglasses purchased, ten trees are planted; 1% of the purchase goes to worldwide organizations that work to protect, preserve, and sustain healthy environments; all OJOS eyewear pouches are made via a micro-financed, grassroots campaign with indigenous women in India to create jobs; and all OJOS display/packaging material is made from reclaimed wood and recycled material.

“I wanted to be a part of a company that didn’t sacrifice quality or impact for money. It was really important to me that this company had a positive impact on the world.”

“As global citizens, we’re globally responsible.”

And if all of this wasn’t impressive enough, Philip also sits on the board of Orange County Youth Motivation Task Force which aims to reduce the high school student drop out rate through meaningful conversations about the importance of education in every day lives.

Philip is intentional about his time, his relationships and how he can be better for others.

Q: Philip, what made you this way?!

A: I was raised in a Christian household which influenced my moral and value system. I was always playing sports, volunteering and traveling as well. I’ve been to almost every single state and have been to several different countries which has most definitely shaped my outlook on life. I think all of these things just lets you see that even with the most diverse group of people, when you break down barriers, you can interact with anyone. There are basic levels of human emotions, needs and values we all share.

Q: What is some advice you would share with others who are trying to live out their passions?

A: Hmm, I think there are several:

  1. Be of service. Opportunities will pop up, resources will flow and satisfaction and self worth have always be in abundance.
  2. Journal, journal, journal. The most successful people journal and it’s how I try to start my day. It’s also a great way to look back at your processes. When I started OJOS, I kept a journal. When things went wrong, I had something I could go back to, reflect on, learn from my mistakes, and made decisions that would lead to different outcomes. Here are some journaling questions I ask myself:
    1. What are the things I want?
    2. What are the ways I can improve?
    3. How do I be a better, inspiring leader for others?
    4. What are all the ways in which I’m blessed?
  3. Cut out the distractions in your life like TV and social media–are they making you a better person? Replace them with reading and learning.

“The more we read, the more we study, the more we understand; the better we are equipped to interact with others and ourselves.”

Q: Any books you recommend?

A: “King Warrior Magician Lover” by Robert Moore & Douglas Gillette
“Iron John” by Robert Bly
“Man’s Search for Meaning” by Victor Frankl
“The Alchemist” by Paolo Coelho
“Wild at Heart” by John Eldredge
“Art of Happiness” by Dalai Lama
“Live in a better way” by Dalai Lama
“Tibetan Book of Living & Dying” by Sogyal Rinpoche
“Life’s Missing Instruction Manual” by Joe Vitale
“Start With Why” by Simon Sinek
John Maxwell books are great as well.

Connect with Philip on Instagram @Phil_Fulcrum or @Revozork!

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