To more than 700 people who have used the Niles Township English Language Learner Parent Center over the last four years, calling director Corrie Wallace a heroine feels just right.
Whether she’s unsung or not though is another matter — at least to those who have benefitted the most from the center. Still, Wallace recently was named an Unsung Heroine representing Cook County’s 13th District led by Commissioner Larry Suffredin.
“Just getting recognition on a broader scale means a lot to me,” Wallace said. “Locally, people do know, but I think it will help in terms of highlighting the center.”
Highlighting the center and finding resources to fulfill its useful mission have meant everything to Wallace, who only last year moved with her family from Fort Sheridan to Skokie. Having grown up in Skokie near Evanston, she knows the area quite well.
“A lot of it had to do with being back in this community and realizing this was home for me,” she said.
The Niles Township ELL Parent Center opened in 2008 in response to the rapidly changing demographics of the township. Niles Township has become one of the most ethnically diverse townships in the state with families arriving from other countries all the time.
Wallace said that such a demographic trend has not slowed down since the center first opened.
“There’s new people coming all the time, which is sort of surprising,” she said. “I thought by now that maybe it would plateau but there’s constantly new people coming in, there’s constantly new families.”
Housed in School District 68’s administration building in Skokie, the center serves the ethnically diverse parents of Niles Township schoolchildren. Its main missions are to provide literacy so parents can effectively communicate; access to community resources so that parents can support raising healthy children; and parent education so that parents themselves can model lifelong learning.
Eight of 10 Niles Township school districts have signed on to sponsor the center, dividing the cost among them, although no one in the township is turned away regardless of their school district.
Wallace still holds out hope that township Golf School District 67 and Skokie-Morton Grove District 69 will eventually pick up their share of the costs as well.
She said she still “absolutely loves” her work every day knowing how much the center has made a difference in people’s lives.
“There are parents who have come through here and are connected with Upwardly Global and can get jobs,” she said by way of an example. “There are parents who came here and their English improved enough where they got work and are now working in local places.”
Wallace’s success with the center is no surprise to those who hired her. She seemed the ideal choice when township school districts went looking for a director for their new center.
Calling her own background “international,” she has an African-American father from Mississippi and a Jewish mother who grew up in Skokie.
She lived in Tokyo from 2003 to 2005 where she taught at a public school. She also lived in Singapore for more than a year.
“I know first-hand what it’s like to be in a new country,” Wallace said when first hired for the job. “I was the immigrant parent then.”
Since first opening, the center has expanded and changed up some of its offerings every year as Wallace keeps a keen eye on programs that fit the needs of the community.
This year, the center piloted a couple of successful health literacy programs and increased the number of college graduate interns who work there. The website and blog for the center have improved.
The recent expansion of trained interpreters for the center has been one of the most important additions, Wallace said.
“That’s huge because that’s something I realized we needed the first year,” she said. “It took four years to get to this point.”
A grant from the village of Skokie and a Chicago Community Trust grant allowed Wallace to finally move ahead in this area. Twenty people who speak 17 languages have been trained under the program.
This summer, the center will partner with the Skokie Public Library and Oakton Community College on a summer family literacy program funded through a grant. The focus will be on Illinois culture.
The center will identify 10 parents and children and help them with their reading over the summer. One of the interns is working on an international cookbook, a project Wallace has wanted to do since she first got here.
If it sounds like the director is tireless in her work for the ELL Center, that’s a fair reading. Wallace is already pursuing more grants including trying to get the center to become Northwestern University’s next recipient of its well-publicized annual dance marathon.
The Niles Township ELL Parent Center on June 7 will host its annual health fair, which traditionally marks the unofficial start to the new year — the center’s fifth. Health fair offerings are free except for shots.
“The health fair is one of the few programs we offer that is for the students and not just for the parents of students,” Wallace said.
(The Review will have more information about the health fair next month).
Winning the Unsung Heroine Award is simply frosting on the cake for Wallace.
She was unaware that she was even nominated; only a previous winner can nominate someone, which is just what Gail Schechter, executive director of Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs, did. Wallace recently began serving as secretary on the Board of Directors of Interfaith Housing Center.
Suffredin called Wallace to tell her the news.
“I had no idea, and it was just so exciting when he told me,” she said.
She was awarded with 16 other women (representing other districts) in a ceremony held at the Chicago Cultural Center. It was the 15th Unsung Heroine Awards, held annually during Women’s History Month.
“She successfully runs the ELL Center on a shoestring budget — and turned it into the only immigrant parent support center in the nation,” lauded the county in its selection of Wallace. “She has created a safe environment, and an environment which fosters learning and acceptance. Corrie is beloved by parents of all races and ethnicities.”
For more information about the center and to access its blog, visit www.ellparentcenter.org.