Written by: Eric Prister
“Once you’re safe, you can do anything.”
In Chicago in 1986, many children were anything but safe. Crime rates were high, poverty rates were high, and Chicago was known for having some of the worst public schools in the country.
Then archbishop of the archdiocese of America’s third-largest city, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin saw this problem, but was unsure how to fix solve it. Demand for Catholic schools in Chicago was great, but parishes didn’t have the money to keep the schools running, and families didn’t have the money to send their kids there anyway.
Bernardin approached business leaders around Chicago for their support, and they rose to the occasion. They wanted to create an organization that supported Catholic schools in the Chicago area, but didn’t want it connected to the diocese—thus, the Big Shoulders Fund was born.
Big Shoulders’ original goal was to raise $1 million so that underprivileged Chicago children could attend Catholic schools. Today, twenty-six years after the program was founded, Big Shoulders has raised more than $250 million.
Big Shoulders works with ninety-three schools and 24,000 students in the Chicago area. They still provide scholarships, as the organization originally sought to do, but they also saw a need for improvement of education in other areas.
“It’s great to have kids in these schools,” Carolyn Gibbs Broughton, ACE graduate and Director of Academic Programs and Student Enrichment at Big Shoulders, said. “But we have to make sure they’re quality schools.
Broughton said that Big Shoulders now focuses on four areas of improvement: scholarships, operations, academic enhancement, and leadership development.
Big Shoulders’ operations efforts come in the form of a patrons program, which matches local business leaders with a school. The patron donates money to the school each year for operational needs—maintenance for the school building, for example— and academic enhancement in the form of music teachers, art supplies, etc. The patron takes an integral role in the school, not only with their contribution, but in the decision-making process on what to do with the funds.
Big Shoulders has also started seeking out potential school leaders and helping them earn their Masters degree. Big Shoulders will pay one-third of the tuition for a participant to earn his or her degree in educational administration as long as the participant agrees to give three years serving as a leader in a Big Shoulders school.
More than the training and the funding, Big Shoulders sought to, and succeeds in addressing the problem of safety in Chicago. A study done by law professors at the University of Notre Dame found a correlation between Catholic schools closing in a neighborhood and an increase in crime rate. Gibbs said that there is a need for Catholic schools in Chicago, a need for safe places for students to come and learn.
“These schools are safe havens. Everyone should have access to a safe and quality school,” she said. “There is a demand for Catholic schools in Chicago—we just need to find innovative ways to give them that chance.”
Throughout twenty-six years serving the people of Chicago, Big Shoulders has constantly sought and utilized innovative ways of helping students receive a quality education, and has provided them with a safe place to succeed.
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