by Diana Torres
Planning can be abstract, so the “My 2040” blog series aims to connect planning to real people throughout the region. The following is one in a series of interviews with residents throughout the region. The views expressed are not necessarily those of CMAP itself. To learn more about this series or to participate, please read more about the program.
Special thanks to Keith Cerk and Barbara Waller for taking the time to share their thoughts and ideas with CMAP staff.
Keith Cerk is senior pastor at the First Baptist Church of Waukegan in Lake County, where Barbara Waller also serves as associate pastor of Family Life Ministry. Waller is the director of “A Cool Summer Experience,” an outreach ministry for fourth and fifth grade students from low-income families. Together they serve the Waukegan community to develop and coordinate programs and events for strengthening healthy families. Both Rev. Cerk and Waller pastor an urban, multi-cultural congregation and have worked with at-risk children, youth, and gang members. Rev. Cerk also serves on the Chicago Wilderness “Leave No Child Inside” Faith-based Advisory Group and on the Youth Services Board of Kids Hope United. Waller serves as president of L.I.F.E., Inc., a non-profit organization she founded that is designed to serve and strengthen families. For additional information, Cerk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Waller can be reached at email@example.com.
Q: What aspect of GO TO 2040 excites you most and why?
Cerk: The GO TO 2040 plan is looking to address many of our region’s needs, like how we’ll address green space and education. At First Baptist Church, we have created a summer program called “A Cool Summer Experience,” that targets the minds, bodies, souls, and spirits of "indoor-type" children enrolled in the Waukegan School District. This six-week program teaches children to connect to nature and the environment, something that these kids have never done before. The program serves as a model for other communities with similar demographics to help low-income and at-risk urban children connect to the outdoors and access their local park districts and forest preserves. But most importantly, this program serves as an educational model to encourage and support academic success by helping students understand the importance of math, science, technology, and engineering in everyday life as they learn more and connect to the outdoors.
Waller: This program is now entering its third year, and the curriculum is a result of collaboration between the First Baptist Church of Waukegan and several other environmental and faith-based organizations, federal and county-level agencies, public schools and community businesses. These students get an opportunity to learn more about their community and our region, and it will help them understand the importance of open land and education.
Q: How does the GO TO 2040 preferred Regional Scenario connect to your community in terms of topics such as enhancing transportation options; increasing housing opportunities; addressing issues related to water, wastewater, storm water, open space, and energy; the importance of density in future development; investment in education and workforce development?
Cerk: The GO TO 2040 plan promotes the improvement of our education system and the development of our workforce. In terms of education, the high school dropout rate in Waukegan is 50 percent. The school district just announced that a significant number of teachers will be laid off during the next academic school year. There is a real need to reach children early to educate them about their role in the economy as the future work force and as consumers. The state of Illinois is broke and we can’t just wait to find out how funding, or the lack thereof, will continue to negatively impact our children.
Waller: The children with whom we work in Waukegan are often underserved and underrepresented. Many of the children, if not all, are [living] at or below the federal poverty line. We hope to show children that they are always to be connected to this community, to inspire them to be more engaged with their natural environment, and to have positive impacts on their education and general well-being.
Q: Identify an issue that is important to you personally, your community or our region and share how you think CMAP is addressing it in the plan.
Cerk: Like the GO TO 2040 plan, our program is about building relationships and creating community. One of the most important aspects of the summer program is that we are playing a role in building community here in Waukegan. This area is very divided, similar to our region, and it’s oftentimes divided along racial lines. Here in Waukegan, the majority of the population is Latino, about 51 percent. There are also educational and socioeconomic differences. We want to help our students appreciate the diverse community here and feel pride in living here. We want to create a sense of shared space where they not only hang out with friends and family, but also learn about the histories and mutual concerns shared with other residents. We all want similar things for our families. This can be a strength which unifies us only if we build relationships and trust. Otherwise, we compete against each other for space or resources. We want our kids to learn that, and to learn the relational skills to make positive change together.
Waller: Children need a safe space, and all children should be able to feel safe, to be outside, to feel loved, and to build special connections with other people in Waukegan. By helping to create healthier children, we hope to build and support the local families. Through “A Cool Summer Experience,” students not only learn about important environmental topics like restoration and renovation of our harbors, water conservation, recycling, local food, and gardening, but also come to appreciate the importance of green space and nature in their lives. We want the children to see there is a relationship between residents and their local and regional environment, like we see in the GO TO 2040 plan. We believe that everyone in this region should have a relationship with other residents in their communities and also their natural environments.
Q: Are there additional recommendations for our region as we continue with the GO TO 2040 plan?
Waller: Sometimes it is difficult for kids to access our region’s parks, forest preserves, Lake Michigan, and other natural spaces. This is especially true of underrepresented groups like low-income families. Sometimes parents may work more than one job and may not have the time to share these experiences with their children. Other times it is an issue of personal safety, as gangs are a major issue here. Some families simply may not know about these places and opportunities in their communities. We do not know what kind of home a child comes from, but we want these children to form relationships with their natural environments from an early age to appreciate all of the benefits. In the GO TO 2040 plan, we hope to see innovative solutions to help solve many of the problems in our region, such as reducing the number of dump sites and to have people learn the importance of reducing waste and recycling. If we can do this as a region, we’ll be able to promote health benefits for our communities.
Q: Please share any additional thoughts, ideas or comments you may have.
Cerk: Nowadays it’s difficult to secure funding for [community building] opportunities, as we’ve learned with “A Cool Summer Experience.” We are lucky to have Barbara volunteer her time as the director since we usually cannot afford to hire staff. Fortunately we have many dedicated volunteers and partners from the community. By working for the community and with the community, we’re seeing some real positive things happening. Last summer, for example, First Baptist was invited by the Park District and GreenTown to work on restoring Roosevelt Park. Our children did some native planting and cleaning, giving them both a sense of pride and a sense of ownership as they were helping to co-create a better life here in Waukegan.
Waller: We hope to continue this effort and having an impact on children physically, spiritually, and mentally. As we say here, “If you educate a child, you change a nation.” By sharing this story and showing how a community can come together to make a difference in one municipality, we hope to inspire other groups in other communities to think about how they can work together to create a better 2040 for all our region’s children.