Republished from an article in the Chicago Tribune on October 20, 2016 by Community Contributor Peter Brancato.
“The foundation of every state is the education of its youth.” This is Roger Carlson’s favorite quote. He adds, “It’s as true now as it was when it was first stated in 327 B.C. by the Greek Philosopher, Diogenes.”
Roger and Ginny Carlson know how fortunate they are to have had a good education. And they know how fortunate they are to be living at The Clare, the beautiful high-rise Continuing Care Community located in the heart of the Gold Coast in downtown Chicago. Though they moved to The Clare just last year, they have lived in the area for 25 years. At that time, the upscale neighborhood was just blocks from Cabrini Green Housing which was one of the city’s most expansive public housing projects. Two of Roger and Ginny’s neighbors, Joanne Alter and Marion Stone saw the disparity between the neighborhoods and wanted to make a difference, especially in the education of children. So they went to the principal at the local elementary school, Richard E. Byrd Academy, where they knew overcrowded classrooms were a problem and asked what they could do to help. Soon they were volunteering their time at the school reading to and mentoring students. And in 1991, after recruiting some friends to help including Roger and Ginny Carlson, Working In The Schools (WITS) was founded.
Ginny started volunteering by working with 36 children in Manierre Elementary’s 6th grade class. “It was a very challenging, but also a very rewarding time,” say Ginny, who became one of the original board members. Ginny soon recruited her husband to be on the board, also. They needed someone in finance, and Roger was the perfect fit. He spent his career as a financial advisor.
Roger was instrumental in helping the WITS’ programs grow. It was his idea to have his business colleagues donate time during their lunch hour to read to students in the classroom. Eventually, this developed into an after-school program where students would go “from the classroom to the board room.” They would be bussed to the corporate offices of some of the volunteers to be tutored there. “It was the first time these students had seen this side of the business world,” Roger recalls. “It was a real eye-opener for many of the kids. They learned that if they continued with their education, they, too could be working in an office like this. It was one of those ‘light bulb’ moments for many of the kids. And now 95% of the children we come in contact with say, ‘We are going to go to college.'”
Roger and Ginny have many stories of the connections they’ve made with students over the years. Ginny recalls one day early in the program when she was walking down the hall of the school and a student took her hand and walked by her side. It was a sixth grader who said, “I got it, I got it. I finally understand fractions! I can’t wait to go home and tell my mom!” “It was so rewarding,” Ginny says, “I just happened to be the lucky person who was there to share that exciting moment with him.”
Roger tells his favorite story of a student named Kevin who was tutored by one of his colleagues, Brian Hickey. “The student was about 11 years old and really bonded with Brian.” When the program ended for the summer, the student really missed his time with Brian. The following week, Kevin appeared in Brian’s office. “Kevin rode his bike all the way from his home by U.S. Cellular Field to our office building downtown. He made his was up to the 51st floor, finds Brian and asks, ‘Can you still help me?'” They continued to work together all summer. Years later, Kevin reconnected with Brian to share what was going on in his life. Kevin had earned his GED, had become a Minister at a church and wanted to show Brian his first sermon. Kevin left Brian with this message, “You saved my life.”
It is these stories that make volunteering with WITS worthwhile. Ginny reflects, “Are we the answer? No. Are we part of the answer? Yes. We are a dedicated group that for 25 years it has been our dream to make the children’s world a better place.”
And in 25 years, WITS has grown tremendously. The organization now has nearly 1,800 volunteers working with 8,000 elementary students each year in over 90 Chicago public school. WITS has been a resounding success and Roger and Ginny continue to play an important role in the rewarding work WITS does. In fact, this November at the annual WITS fundraiser, they will be honored for their years of service along with all of the other original board members. Since the Carlsons moved to The Clare last year, the number of residents who volunteer for WITS has increased to 20 and continues to grow.
For anyone who is interested in finding out more about WITS or would like to volunteer for one of their programs, you can go to www.witschicago.org.