Chicago philanthropist Deirdre "Dede" Koldyke created the EarthHeart Foundation five years ago as a support group to help mothers in the impoverished neighborhoods of Englewood and Woodlawn on Chicago's South Side. Her goal was to empower women to become community leaders and peace builders in areas hard hit by crime, joblessness, and hopelessness.
What sparked the effort? Watching the local news night after night and seeing kids killed on the streets of Chicago, Koldyke decided she had to get involved.
"My heart was breaking for these women who would lose their children," says Koldyke, who also is a mother. "I lived a very privileged life and while this was happening in a community where I didn't live, I just couldn't sit back any longer and watch."
Trained as a family therapist, Koldyke says her instincts were not just to help impoverished mothers but build on their core strengths, including the respect they had in their families and communities. Koldyke could provide resources, but she wanted those she would help to provide the ideas.
Encouraging her was an active and like-minded family. Dede, her husband Laird (managing partner of Winona Capital), and in-laws Martin "Mike" and Pat Koldyke have had a long relationship with William Blair and are civic leaders in Chicago with a passion for education.
Pat and Mike, a venture capitalist, founded the Golden Apple Foundation in 1985 to recognize outstanding school teachers, and in 2001 started the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), now one of the largest and oldest teacher residency programs in the nation.
Starting with moms
"As a family therapist I knew healthy families start with healthy moms. Let’s get them feeling confident, feeling connected, cared for. Then ultimately that will ripple into the community."
So in 2013, Koldyke established the EarthHeart Foundation. 'Earth is for mother, heart is for love," she says.
She started working with AUSL and then the Chicago Public Schools to identify moms active in the system and leaders in their communities.
Focused on Englewood and Woodlawn, she began to make the personal connections at the core of the sisterhood of the group. The concerned mothers she found acted "as advisors, as ambassadors for their communities. I was getting their input on what needed to be done."
EarthHeart's first outreach program was the Mother Ambassadors for Peace (MAP), an ambitious network of mothers who met, talked, shared, marched, and organized for what their communities needed. More than 30 mothers have been involved in the network over time.
During the early MAP gatherings, moms came up with many ideas that became the backbone of EarthHeart programs including workshops on raising resilient kids, financial fitness, and social and emotional support for moms. The group organizes annual celebrations like Spread the Love and Mother's Day celebrations as well.
Tenesha Barner, who grew up and raised her two children in Woodlawn, was among the first EarthHeart ambassadors. With the help of her mentor, Barner began attending college a couple years ago and now her daughter, a high school senior, is applying for college.
"We all help each other within this organization to help change what's going on in our community," says Barner. "If you reach one person you've done a great job. It’s a domino effect," adding that moms in her housing complex who find it tough to trust others are now asking how they can get involved.
"If not for EarthHeart I probably would still be stuck in my little bubble. We want to take moms outside of their bubble. Many have never left their neighborhoods," says Barner, who visited the Art Institute of Chicago for the first time this past summer on an EarthHeart outing.
Mentoring continues to be a vital component of EarthHeart with mothers outside the community mentoring those inside it.
"It also builds a bridge in Chicago across communities," Koldyke says. "I'm truly amazed by the hurdles these women have to go through, the challenges they face and yet how strong they are. These women inspire me."