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Home of the Sparrow, Gavers Community Cancer Foundation thrive on community support

Both nonprofit organizations that won Commitment to McHenry County awards for their community contributions credited the community itself for the ability to sustain services over the years.

Both Home of the Sparrow, a McHenry-based homeless shelter for area women and children, and the Gavers Community Cancer Foundation, a Woodstock-based organization that has raised millions for cancer research, after all rely on hundreds of community volunteers to operate.

As the demands on nonprofits have increased in recent years, both organizations have made strides to reinvest in the county and its clients, whether its through Home of the Sparrow’s efforts to expand services or the Gavers Foundation’s commitment to raise donations for area health care providers.

Those reasons and others are why both organizations were named nonprofits of the year during the Northwest Herald’s inaugural Commitment to McHenry County awards program earlier this fall.

Gavers Community Cancer Foundation

The only year lifelong Woodstock resident Steve Gavers set a fundraising goal for the Gavers Barndance was in its inaugural year, and his goal ended up being “totally wrong,” said Denise Graff Ponstein, a friend of Gavers from Woodstock High School and a founding foundation board member who still serves the all-volunteer board.

Known for being casual and fun, the Gavers Barndance is the foundation’s only annual fundraiser and has helped the foundation raise $6.8 million toward cancer research since Gavers – a cancer survivor – started the nonprofit in 2000.

His goal for the event’s first year was to raise $10,000 and draw 300 people, Ponstein said. By the event’s end, 923 people helped raise $125,000.

Exceeding his expectations, the fundraising goals ended then. Earlier this summer, the popular event attracted different doubters, who thought the seven inches of rain before and during the Barndance would damper turnout, Ponstein said.

Expectations were exceeded. Known as the “Mudance,” the event this summer drew thousands and raised $540,000 – the second best showing in the Barndance’s 16 years, she said.

“For 16 straight years, volunteers, sponsors, donors and attendees have wrapped their arms around our cause,” Ponstein said. “While we are a board of 15, it’s the continued commitment of our volunteers and supporters that makes the Barndance so successful.”

The community support has worked both ways since Gavers began the foundation. The millions raised for cancer research has gone to providers throughout the Chicago area.

Centegra Health System used foundation donations to create the Centegra Gavers Breast Center, offer free cancer screenings, create a cancer information library and various other services. Donations have helped the Family Health Partnership Clinic provide screenings and screening equipment to its underinsured clients.

The foundation has supported breast and lung cancer research at Rush University Medical Center, along with the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

Aside from its volunteer board, the foundation relies on hundreds of volunteers each year to organize the annual Barndance and spread the word about its cause, Gavers said.

Following a “deep soul search” after his recovery from cancer, Gavers started the foundation as a means to raise awareness about cancer and encourage others to “get checked,” he said.

With the foundation’s cause and Barndance thriving years later, the community response – well – has exceeded his expectations.

“It has exceeded any wish any of us ever had. We live in a great area with great people,” Gavers said. “There are a lot of big hearts around here.”

Home of the Sparrow

Four years ago, Home of the Sparrow reached a plateau delivering housing and other services to women and their children, said Debbie DeGraw, vice president for marketing.

Many of whom still come to the organization after some form of domestic violence.

Since it started in the county in 1987, Home of the Sparrow worked to provide them shelter. But as the community’s social service needs grow, the organization realized it needed to grow with them, DeGraw said.

The revelation four years ago has caused Home of the Sparrow to diversify and expand services. In 2015, the organization served 553 homeless women and children, up from the 124 people served in 2012.

Aside from its emergency shelter, it added 19 affordable housing units for clients along with three transitional apartments designed to create a more independent lifestyle for clients.

It launched a rapid rehousing program through federal housing funds. The organization covers certain upfront rent payments for women, who either have secured or are securing employment, to place them in permanent housing, freeing space at Home of the Sparrow’s other facilities to serve additional clients.

Two new outreach and prevention managers were hired to help field the increasing calls and walk-ins to Home of the Sparrow who ask about using its services for the first time. The managers work to identify people who may need services from area nonprofits before their situation worsens, DeGraw said.

A new employment specialist works to connect clients with prospective employers who are looking to fill job openings. Home of the Sparrow also offers individual clients specialized money management training, family counseling, adult and child therapy services.

Capping off the recent changes at Home of the Sparrow, Gene Salvadalena earlier this spring left a 24-year career with international aerospace manufacturer Boeing to head Home of the Sparrow.

The expanded services at Home of Sparrow all are meant to ensure the homeless women and their children who come to the organization receive the appropriate resources to get them back to “self sufficiency,” the new executive director said.

“It’s more than just a shelter,” Salvadalena said. “Shelter is a short term solution. A longer term solution is to try and work with the homeless and their children to get them to move forward with some levels of income and some shelter over their heads. It’s needs driven.”

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