I wrote this article in August 2011 at the request of the YMCA of Metro Chicago for its 2010 Annual Report. It was imperative that the interview take place quickly because of Mr. Bosanko’s dire medical condition.
When the 2010 Annual Report was finally published during the last week of December 2011, quite late by the standards of the business calendar, the article had been omitted.
Because the Y of Metro Chicago has failed to publish it at all, I have opted to publish it here in tribute to the remarkable Mr. Bosanko, who had died in October 2011, months before the release of the Annual Report that ignored his service to the citizens of Chicago and the members of the YMCA. — Michael Vitali
Neil Bosanko is a community organizer who leads the South Chicago Chamber of Commerce. He has partnered with the Y many times over the course of his career.
My involvement with the Y goes back about thirty years, when I ran a settlement house similar to what the YMCA of South Chicago was doing at the time. I ran the McKinley South Chicago Neighbor House.
We collaborated on some programs including government training of our young people, so they could learn what it was to be an alderman or the mayor. Kids would shadow the alderman for the day, and one of our young people actually became the city’s mayor for the day. That’s how successful the program was.
I started to work with other businesses to help the needy of the community. The South Chicago YMCA at the time had residential units upstairs that housed not necessarily senior citizens. We started organizing food pantries and feeding programs to benefit those who were residing or were involved at the YMCA.
The dual importance of community dinners
We raised the money to purchase the food and we cooked and prepared it, and every Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day and major holiday we would offer free lunch or dinner there. We would attract 150 to 200 individuals.
The meal was served by an alderman or a priest or a business owner. It’s a very humbling experience. We’ve had a steady stream of volunteers ever since —we have had to turn them away. The volunteers tend to get more out of the experience than the people who are receiving the food.
Isolation is another major issue that we tried to tackle with this program. Being out of your room or apartment or home and enjoying a holiday with your neighbors gives a spiritual lift, especially if your extended family is not in close proximity.
What is a settlement house?
The main object of the 20th century settlement movement was the establishment of “settlement houses” in poor urban areas, in which volunteer middle-class “settlement workers” would live, hoping to share knowledge and culture with, and alleviate the poverty of their low-income neighbors.
The movement gave rise to many social policy initiatives and innovative ways of working to improve the conditions of the most excluded members of society.
The most famous Settlement House in the United States is Chicago’s Hull House.
Reaching out to youth at risk
We also started working with the YMCA in partnerships with their youth outreach programs. The need for the Y has become increasingly obvious for teenagers — not necessarily an afterschool art program or day camp kind of program. Something much more intense is necessary for high-risk teens who are dying in large numbers. They are victims of shootings in this community. The Y’s importance has continued to increase, and yet the resources to operate these programs diminish every year. Other issues seem to take higher priority by government and private funding sources.
The gym is one thing, but the street intervention program is another. And the latter is an effective vehicle for tackling the problems of high-risk young people.
The Y has a day camp that’s outstanding. They have a senior citizen advocacy program, and feeding and nutrition programs that are outstanding. The Y does quality work when they roll up their sleeves and decide that they want to tackle those kinds of issues.
Perceptions and donations
As more people tend to experience financial issues themselves, my worry is that donors will not come forward as much as they used to. Their dollars are tightening up. Some agencies are fighting to survive, so you rob Peter to pay Paul. Donors may help one agency that they feel close to, and don’t have enough money for the others that are just as qualified to receive your dollars and your grants.
So I’m worried about the YMCA because people perceive it to be different things, depending on who you’re talking to. Some people think of the Y as a wealthier swimming pool kind of place, others think it’s only basketball for kids. But it’s a holistic approach to working with the family.
The Y’s purpose is just as relevant as it always has been. It has a religious background, but anybody of any religion can benefit from the Y’s programs. Every economic group, every age group — people just don’t even realize the Y has so many programs that exist for them. Perceptions are one thing, and reality is another.
I see tears in people’s eyes for my terminal cancer. But I say no, no, no.
Tears aren’t going to keep these programs going at the Y or any of these other places that I’ve started these activities.
If you really want to recognize me for what I’ve accomplished in my forty years of community service, then replace me. Find the people who can continue to run these programs.
Ebb and flow of local and metro
Over the last thirty years, our local Y has changed a lot. It went from being a very community-controlled facility with a board of directors and an advisory group that was composed of home-grown businesspeople and community leaders. The influence from within the community was intense.
Then it went into a crisis mode. Much of the proceeds of the fundraising done by us went to Metropolitan Y and did not stay within the community where it was generated for the purpose of our local facility. A lot of us felt that if it wasn’t going to benefit our community per se, we didn’t have the same interest in fundraising.
But that has since changed back. We’re seeing a balance — we’re probably a recipient of more than what we raise for Metro because our needs here are greater. The income of our population is pretty low compared to other communities with the Metro system.
When New City Y closed in the Near North and was sold for redevelopment, some of the proceeds were distributed to various centers around the Metro system. The facilities benefited with physical upgrades as a result.
That has helped us attract new donors for the first time in a long time. We seen a tremendous increase locally because the local facility is now cleaner and we have money to do the kinds of improvements that are necessary. When people buy into the fact that it’s not sucking the life out of the community, that it’s really the community’s little gem, people tend to step up and give a little more and reach deeper into the pockets.
First experiences with the Y
I went into the Y as a spiritual person. I had been taught to be involved in the community from an early age by my family. At fifteen I was already involved in doing community projects, including at the YMCA, which was the place for young people to hang out. I also went to the Jewish community center but I wasn’t as attracted to that group, even though I am Jewish. I felt more aligned with the YMCA, it was more hands-on. It reached the greater population. The Jewish community center reached only the Jewish population and weren’t too involved in the Hispanic and African-American populations and the problems that we have in the South Chicago community.
The Y is purely people caring for people.
The Y was trying to improve the quality of life for a greater number and variety of people. I was attracted to the Y’s more inclusive approach. The kind of programs they had reached out to anybody. It wasn’t clique-ish. They had a good variety or programs about government, where young people could learn how to be leaders. How to be involved hands-on in the community.
For my part, I try to keep the Y grounded in the community. I ask questions like, “How can community members access your facility if they don’t have dollars to spend?” The Y does partner up and provide programs and accessibility to young people and other community members.
A catalyst for change that continues
I see myself as a catalyst. Because I am terminally ill, one of my last wishes is to make sure that the community dinners we began will continue. I want those seniors and other individuals who come to the YMCA on Christmas Day or Thanksgiving or other holidays to see those traditions continue because they’re more important than people realize.
The last three months we’ve spent lining up agencies and funding and cooks to make sure that this partnership continues. It’s not based on one person. This is something that’s good, and the community feels that it’s good, and the people that are benefiting from it are going to continue to benefit from it. I am very proud of this legacy.
Choosing the Y
If you as a donor or volunteer are considering where or why to contribute your time or money, I think if you went into the YMCA, you would see why. There’s no facade. No glamor. It is purely people caring for people.
If you go into the South Chicago Y you will see kids who are throwaways, tossed away by society. They have dysfunctional families, poor academic performance, and they need the support that the Y has offered for generations. You need role models — images of grandmothers, moms, aunts and uncles — all working with the kids who need it most.
Another agency I worked with, not the Y, refused to authorize a camping trip to Indiana because of the bus expense, but they did authorize $85 cloth covered chairs for kids that would have been destroyed in art class within two weeks. I said, “We don’t need fancy $85 chairs, our chairs are fine, the kids sit in worse chairs at home. I would rather offer them something more long-term, something more meaningful that impacts on these young people’s thought processes.”
I left that agency. I couldn’t deal with their downtown fancy-schmancy offices. Their attention to fancy furniture showed that their priorities seemed to be in the wrong direction. But the Y’s attention to day care, early intervention, the teen programs and even the basketballs they provide the kids show where their strength is. I like to see an agency put the money and the resources into those kinds of efforts.
I have plaques and awards all over the place that agencies have given me. Some of them must have cost two hundred bucks. I used to say, “Don’t give me the $200 plaque — I don’t need any more plaques. That’s not my motivation. Give the $200 to the programs. Or give the value of the plaque to me and I’ll return it as scholarships or other donations.” This was sometime met with laughter, but now it is quite common to offer a choice to award recipients of a plaque or a donation that they can direct. It started out as a joke, but became something serious.
I see tears in people’s eyes for my terminal cancer. But I say no, no, no. Tears aren’t going to keep these programs going at the Y or any of these other places that I’ve started these activities. If you really want to recognize me for what I’ve accomplished in my forty years of community service, then you need to step up to the plate and replace me. Find the people who can continue to run these programs. If something I did was good enough for you to give me an award, it is good enough for you to help continue under someone else’s name.
Our moment in history
People who have historically offered support are now sometimes faced with being recipients of support. Resources are drying up. People whom we have depended upon are now often finding themselves for the first time in the situation of being the needy ones. They truly now do understand the value of what they’ve contributed in the past. But it’s because they are now recipients.
This is not a self-centered country. Let’s look at a recent YMCA function involving the people in this community. They worked on Relay for Life, a cancer relay program that is nationwide. This is a small community and we’ve traditionally never had these kinds of activities, that’s more of a North Side or suburban thing. We started it about four years ago, and this year we raised about $28,000. Last year was $26,000. It started growing from a couple of families and now we’ve got a hundred people involved. A different level of individuals and leaders is getting involved.
It never ceases to amaze me that even though people are living under difficult conditions, they still have a heart. They still tend to want to make a difference in other people’s lives. We have a food drive in which the Y participates, and we raise about 7,500 canned goods.
We have a program called Quarter for a Cause. Schoolkids contribute a quarter on Halloween, and we raise $3500 locally. The greatest amount of money comes from the poorest schools. Everyone has a quarter, even the youngest kids. No matter how poor you are, you always have a quarter. The program makes everyone feel that they are contributing. It gives them a sense of, “I can do something also. I’ve got problems, but I don’t have it so bad that I can’t help someone.” We’re trying to develop a different level of leadership.
How do you stretch the dollars to the fullest use?
I’m the fourth generation of my family at the South Chicago Y. My son, a police officer, is fifth generation. My grandmother went there for lunch and to play the piano. The Y is for every generation, and it’s always been that way.
Photo by Michael Vitali.