Getting to Know Southern Illinois Where They Are Fiercely Passionate About Place
Having spent my professional career in northeastern Illinois, I had little knowledge of the southern part of the state beyond the periodic trips to Springfield (which southern Illinoisans will tell you is definitely NOT part of their region.) That changed in September when three separate consulting projects gave me a chance to get know the area.
For Catholic Relief Services I worked with a small team a staff and volunteers on an intense outreach campaign to leaders in the Catholic Diocese of Belleville. Our goal was to share information on the global relief arm of the Catholic Church and explore how local parishes could be more connected to its work. We met with over 50 people in 2 ½ days and covered a lot of ground since the footprint of the Diocese covers the southern quarter of the state.
I learned about the unique history of Clinton County (just east of Belleville) settled by German Catholic farmers and home to 13 small but vibrant village churches. Further east, several of the counties had histories of Ku Klux Klan activity and had almost no Catholic presence. In Olney I learned about (but didn’t see) their famous white squirrels. Like many of the churches I visited, St. Joseph in Olney is partnering with two nearby parishes to deal with the shortage of priests. The Chicago Archdiocese is facing similar challenges which its “Renew My Church” effort is intended to address.
I then headed to Carbondale and was hosted by the Illinois Education Association (IEA). The state’s largest teachers’ union helped create the Partnership for Resilience, an effort to help schools become more effective at reaching poor students and students who have experienced childhood trauma. We wanted to see if there was sufficient interest in southern Illinois for a partnership like the “Southland Initiative” in the Southern Cook County suburbs.
The area is home to Southern Illinois University and its dynamic Center for Rural Health and Social Service Development. Other regional anchors include Southern Illinois Healthcare, a strong hospital network, Egyptian Health Department, a non-profit serving three rural counties, and the IEA itself. The area has many needs (including a big opioid addition problem) but also local leaders who are incredibly creative and resourceful. I left optimistic about the chance for a strong local partnership to address childhood trauma in the schools and wider community.
The final stop was a return visit to the Sandoval public schools where I’ve been working with the Consortium for Educational Change to bolster the family and community engagement. Sandoval High School is housed in an impressive New Deal-era building on the edge of the village of 1,200. Dr. Jennifer Garrison, the district’s energetic superintendent, arranged for me to meet with Judge Ericka Sanders. Judge Sanders is leading efforts to create “student and family education courts” as an alternative to traditional truancy courts.
At Sandoval High School this means periodic visits by the judge to meet with students who have amassed 7 or more unexcused absences. Together with two social workers from the area’s mental health agency (who are housed at the school), they work with the family to address the obstacles to student attendance and success. The effort is already having a big impact and is set to expand in the next year.
This last visit embodies what is hopeful about southern Illinois: Local leaders fiercely committed to the place who have learned how to create local partnerships to address area problems. To be sure, the region – and countless similar places across the US – could use infusions of public and private resources to help them rebuild. But from what I saw, southern Illinoisans aren’t going to wait on outside resources to address their communities’ most pressing needs.
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