Evanston Community Foundation: Making CJE's Mission Possible

by Carole Klein-Alexander

ECF’s Mission: Helping Evanston thrive now and forever as a vibrant, inclusive, and just community, the Evanston Community Foundation builds, connects, and distributes resources and knowledge through local organizations for the common good.

Home to about 76,000 people, Evanston, Illinois is a lively, vibrant and cosmopolitan city just 13 miles north of downtown Chicago. Founded in 1857, Evanston is known for its socio-economic diversity, plenitude of cultural venues, stunning architectural assets, the much-acclaimed Northwestern University and panoramic view of Lake Michigan.

In 1986, the Evanston Community Foundation (ECF) was launched by volunteer Evanstonians, with help from the Evanston United Way, to address and prepare for Evanston’s continued growth. By 2000, ECF’s Board recognized the critical need for professional leadership if they were to elevate the organization’s mission of enriching Evanston and the lives of its people well into the future. That significant turning point led to the hiring of ECF’s first full-time employee, Sara Schastok, Ph.D., who became its Executive Director in early 2001 and by 2008, its President and CEO.

After almost 15 years of exceptional leadership, Dr. Schastok has recently announced that she plans to step down from this role but will remain involved in an advisory capacity. It is evident that her passion about the community where she lives and works has not waned. During her tenure, the Foundation has grown from a project of Evanston United Way with less than $3 million in assets to a significant force for improvement and social change in Evanston, with assets exceeding $20 million and annual grants of nearly $900,000. In 2014, the total distributions from all of its funds exceeded $1.9 million. Dr. Schastok has also built a solid team of professional program and development specialists to “lead Evanston where it wants to go, build endowments for the future, and provide resources for the present.”

Dr. Schastok emphasizes that ECF’s mission has definitely evolved in the past three decades to validate the importance of “community.” It seeks out opportunities to better understand— and respond to—what the community really needs and focuses on: maximizing resources by pooling them and providing grants that will build sustainable organizations or programs.

In 1977, on a parallel track, CJE SeniorLife was receiving recognition for its forward-thinking approach to eldercare by introducing—in Evanston—one of the first Adult Day Services (ADS) programs in the country. It was not until 1979 that the newly-formed National Adult Day Services Association even developed standards for this emerging and viable community- based care option for people with dementia and related disorders.

Today, ADS is officially defined as a “professional care setting in which older adults, adults living with dementia or adults living with disabilities receive individualized therapeutic, social and health services for some part of the day in a community- based group setting.”

In the past ten years, CJE’s Adult Day Services in Evanston has often been viewed as a nationwide model for its integration of creative arts therapy into daily programming. Arts therapy can be used to address unresolved emotions and issues, facilitate verbal or nonverbal expression of thoughts and feelings, or provide a client with relief from frustration and sadness. There are numerous evidence-based studies indicating that arts- related activities—music, dance, fine arts or drama—keep ADS participants physically, mentally and socially engaged.

Many of CJE’s ADS participants live in Evanston, with others traveling from near north suburbs or Chicago. So in 2014, when CJE requested support from ECF for its ADS creative arts therapy program, ECF responded with a $4,500 grant to purchase musical instruments and equipment to provide more participants with the opportunity for self-expression in a life-affirming, creative manner. In 2015, CJE received another $5,750 grant from ECF which will provide an extra day of music therapy as well as materials to construct a client-designed mural that will embellish the ADS building wall facing Howard Street, offering just a peek into the vibrant community that CJE’s ADS program strives to create every day for its 200-plus participants.

When asked why ECF decided to make the commitment to grow and sustain the arts therapy program at CJE’s Adult Day Services Program, Dr. Schastok responds: “Life is a process. At ECF, we have learned that Evanston residents believe arts programming should be accessible throughout the continuum of life. Art helps us work through our problems and our challenges at any age. This was a perfect fit for us.”

We are delighted—and very grateful—that Evanston Community Foundation’s mission to create a vibrant, inclusive and just community and CJE’s mission to enhance the lives of older adults have converged in such a powerful, meaningful and inspirational way.