Charity Starts at Home for Illinois Court
Turn either way from the front entrance of the Melvin Price Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in East St. Louis, Illinois, and you’ll walk past blocks of boarded up buildings and abandoned lots.
The unemployment rate in East St. Louis is the highest in the state and thirty-five percent of the residents, and 67 percent of the children there live below the poverty level. The FBI ranks East St. Louis, Illinois highest among 3,000 small cities for its murder rate, second for violent crime overall.
However, the decaying city is not a deterrent to those who work in the Southern District of Illinois. In fact it’s an incentive.
“Our District is committed to genuine and vigorous involvement in the local community, and our Community Outreach Committee has been instrumental in putting that commitment into practice,” said Chief Judge Michael J. Reagan.
Once a week in the late afternoon, Reagan leaves his East St. Louis courthouse and drives a few blocks to a nearby community center. There, he and other court employees spend hours tutoring children from the nearby projects in reading, math...and perhaps something intangible.
“In our court, we see firsthand the carnage that’s caused by drugs and guns,” said Reagan. “This is a way we can try to help a community that’s in dire need of assistance. Maybe on that particular day at that particular time, you make somebody’s life a little better.”
That eagerness to help their community goes wide and deep in the district. Over three dozen court staff help organize and participate in charitable events through the court’s Community Outreach Program and also assist charities in the East St. Louis and Benton area.
They have helped support a crisis nursery, donated fleece blankets for first responders, participated in Red Cross blood drives, coordinated an annual school supply drive, collected canned goods to the local food pantry, hosted a yearly holiday party for children living in the projects of East St. Louis, and given $500 worth of toys and school supplies to the East St. Louis “Project Success” program. The program serves children who are in protective custody and referred by the Department of Children and Family Services caseworkers. One year, when a tornado struck nearby towns, court staff brought cleaning supplies and food to the communities.
Lisa Tidwell, a courtroom services supervisor, has been involved with the Community Outreach Program since 2010.
“The committee was organized in 2002 when several staff members recognized the need to make even small improvements in the quality of life of the residents served by our district. For example, the committee has spruced up playgrounds and planted trees in East St. Louis,” said Tidwell. “The meth problem in our Benton area has had a terrible effect on the children living there. So there’s a Tote Me Home project we contribute to, where kids who don’t have access to full meals over the weekend, are provided with backpacks on Fridays full of food to take home. In the summer we contribute money and supplies to several churches that run summer lunch programs.”
Tidwell estimates there are approximately 35 people on the actual outreach committee, “but when I ask for volunteers to participate in one of our many outreach events, lots more people in the court will offer to help,” she said. “We have participants from the district, bankruptcy, and probation offices, and from the U.S. Marshals Service, the Federal Defenders Office, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”
Throughout the year, court volunteers raise money for local charities and events with sucker sales on Valentine’s Day, with a district wide chili/soup/dessert cook-off and a Backyard BBQ for opening day of the baseball season, by compiling and selling a cookbook enticingly titled “Judging from the Kitchen,” and even by collecting spare change.
Probation Officer Kristi Miller, who has been a member of the Community Outreach Program for 10 years, got the spare change idea from a local radio station that was collecting pennies for a charity.
“I just set jars out in all the offices and gave a tray of bagels to the office that collected the most,” Miller said. “We collected $1,000 for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In change! That’s amazing.”
Once a month, court volunteers also staff the “Soup Bus,” that Miller calls, “one of the highlights.” It’s literally a travelling soup kitchen where city residents know they can get something hot to eat. Soup bus may be a misnomer, however. As Miller admits, “When it’s our turn to man the bus, we might buy pizza and fresh fruit.”
Miller’s favorite program, though, is at the holidays when the court organizes its own Secret Santa Angel Tree.
“We’ll contact one of the social services agencies that manage foster care placement. They’ll email me a child’s letter to Santa — I think we had 43 letters last year — and I pass that along to anyone in the court who has offered to provide a gift. I drive a little bitty Honda Civic and I get to pack that full of gifts – four or five times over! People are so unbelievably generous.”
Miller said that the court’s outreach program works partly because it’s not just one or two people organizing everything. Some people concentrate on the fund-raising and some concentrate on the outreach. But everyone pitches in.
“You always make time for the things that are important,” said Miller. “There are so many people who work in this court system who do care.”
Tidwell agrees. “We just have an extraordinary group of people assembled in this district. They’re just wonderful people who are willing to go above and beyond to make sure these things happen. I mean it’s a GROUP. All of us get it done.”
The relationship benefits both the community and the court. “The Committee strives to educate the surrounding communities about the court’s functions while encouraging our employees to be aware of and take a positive role in addressing the issues facing our District,” Reagan said.