BY ROBERTA CODEMO
Giving back to others is a common theme that is woven throughout Aruna Mathur’s conversation.
When she was a small child in India, her mother taught her to give to others. She said that the difference between animals and humans was that animals cared only for themselves while humans cared for others.
“My parents did a lot for others. My father was an ophthalmologist who never took money from the poor because he knew vision was important. I grew up knowing it was important to take care of other human beings.”
After she moved to Springfield in 1969 to join her husband, who was employed as an engineer at the Illinois Department of Transportation, she knew she had to give back to the community. “I came from India with two suitcases,” she said. “This community welcomed me.”
There weren’t many people from India living in Springfield at that time. She recalls she was out shopping one day when a little boy asked her where she was from. When she said she was Indian, he asked her where her feathers were. “He thought I was an American Indian. Now I say I’m from India when someone asks where I’m from.”
A retired researcher with Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, she earned a master’s degree in microbiology in India and a degree in medical technology from the University of Illinois Springfield in 1975. After raising two children, she joined SIU School of Medicine in 1976 in the microbiology department before transferring to the Division of Plastic Surgery, where she stayed for 23 years before leaving in 2001.
She loves the Springfield community. “This is my home. I’ve lived here longer than I lived in India. I came here when I was 22 and now I’m 72.”
In 1991, she called a few friends and invited them to her home. At that time, people would work on small fundraising projects individually and would help others back home in India. She thought it was time that everyone gave back to the community that had given them so much. “I was very passionate about it.”
At first the group started out as a social gathering and would meet monthly at each other’s homes. “We didn’t have family here,” she said. “Our friends became like a family.”
Everybody looks forward to getting together. “It feels like a party.”
The group has grown from 20 to 25 members to 30 to 35 members, and has volunteered with Hospital Sisters Mission Outreach, the Boys & Girls Club, Helping Hands, St. John’s Breadline and the Angel Tree at White Oaks Mall.
The group organized and formed a nonprofit in 1992. She served as president until 2009 when she stepped down. After her husband died in 2013, she needed something to do. So when the organization asked her to come back in 2015 she did and served until retiring in 2016. “It was time for new blood to come in and take over,” she said.
“We started out doing little things,” she said, such as cookie sales and garage sales. It wasn’t until 1994 that they reached out to other organizations and offered to do fundraisers for them.
Everybody turned them down except Joan Vogal, who was the executive director of the Ronald McDonald House at that time. “She was surprised someone wanted to do something for them.”
The organization held its first India Night in 1996 to introduce the community to Indian culture and raised $6,952. The organization served Indian foods and there were Indian dances, fashion shows and an auction. Since that time, it has raised a total of $201,788 for the Ronald McDonald House.
“We didn’t know what to call ourselves in the beginning,” she said. Originally, the organization called itself the Women’s Club before changing its name to the Asian Indian Women’s Organization.
In 2016, the group changed its focus and held a fundraiser for the neonatal intensive care unit at HSHS St. John’s Hospital. “It worked out wonderfully,” she said, and the organization raised $136,800. This year they are hosting a fundraiser for Mercy Communities on Sept. 29.
“It feels good doing this,” she said. “I do it from the bottom of my heart.”
Since she retired, she loves spending time with her grandchildren and traveling. “I love visiting India,” she said. “I love coming back to my home.”
Dr. Clarice Ford
BY COURTNEY ENLOW HALL
Since 2008, Clarice Ford, Ph.D., has gifted Springfield with her faith. Not only her spiritual faith – Dr. Ford has a master’s in religious education and theology and is an ordained minister – but her faith in people, and how the two applications of faith meet.
“To me, my experience in the seminary allows me to utilize my faith to believe that it’s not always what you see. That it’s important to understand a person for who they are inside and out,” she said. “It has helped me work with all students and staff from different walks of life from the atheists to the Christians to the nonbelievers. It has given me the opportunity to be able to communicate with them effectively and love them in spite of their belief system.”
That faith in and love for humanity, without judgment or condition, is actually the driving force behind Ford’s current role as vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of Illinois Springfield. When asked if she always wanted to be an educator, she laughed. “I actually wanted to be a parole officer.”
The seemingly divergent paths make a lot of sense, really. With her experience in corrections, working with juvenile and adult male offenders, Ford began noticing a pattern: most of her clients had a history of issues that began in school. “It happened at an early age or middle school or high school, where maybe they didn’t know how to read and no one caught it. So they struggled and dropped out and crime occurred,” she explained. “I saw that connection and thought ‘I really want to stop that.’ I really want to make certain that students know they can be anything they want to be and that they have the tools to do that.”
Ford grew up in Farrell, Pennsylvania, a diverse steel town with a strong sense of community. In fact, in addition to her parents, she considers herself raised by many of her neighbors, who inspire her to this day. “I always had women to support me,” she said. “I still receive calls from women who were there when I was a kid. They’re still holding on to me.”
The first in her immediate family to graduate from college, Ford’s own educational experience informed how she serves her students. “I went to school at a time schools didn’t know how to serve students of color. I struggled because of that. I didn’t have the support I needed to be successful back then,” she said. “So I made a conscious decision that no matter what I did in life, I would try to be a support for people.”
Ford has been in Springfield nine years. What she loves most about it is its sense of community and how it rallies around its young people. That’s something she does herself, not only through her role at UIS, but as a volunteer, trustee and board member for numerous organizations, such as Rotary, Springfield Urban League, Hoogland Center for the Arts and Rutledge Youth Foundation. “I’m honored and blessed to be embraced by a town that I really have no family in or no connection to,” she said. “Everyone has embraced me.”
That embrace is mutual. In 2012, UIS students named her Mentor of the Year, and this February, Ford was named the recipient of the 2018 Outstanding Commitment in Education award by the Illinois State Treasurer’s Office. “I live for the students. Regardless of their background, regardless of their race, regardless of their age, I try very hard to make certain that I’m their support system and their advocate,” she said.
Ford’s commitment to giving back has only increased in the past few years, particularly after a stroke in 2014 brought her face to face with the possibility of death. “I believe in much is given and much is required, and I’ve been given a lot. I’ve been given a second chance. There was a reason I was spared, and I believe that reason has a lot to do with giving back,” she said. “If it means I just say hello to someone or can help someone financially or give my time to the community or a student, any student, that’s my goal. I just want to make certain that I leave a legacy.”
Rev. Margaret Ann Jessup
BY CINDA ACKERMAN KLICKNA
After 25 years as an oncology nurse, Margaret Ann Jessup had a calling she just couldn’t ignore – entering seminary. Today, she is an ordained minister, serving as the associate pastor at Douglas Avenue United Methodist Church.
Many in the community know of the Douglas program called Wooden It Be Lovely. Women who have struggled with issues such as drug abuse, incarceration or prostitution learn to refinish and paint donated furniture. Jessup says many people just think about the furniture because it is so beautiful and something they can actually see. “But, I don’t think about furniture. I think about the women we are helping. And, what I see are the women who come to us with a broken soul and become stronger over time.”
With four teenage children, Jessup entered Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, graduating in 2014. An internship at Thistle Farms in Tennessee, focused on the concept that love heals, helped her realize that her real mission was to work with women who struggled. Women at Thistle Farms made lotions and lip gloss while learning work skills.
When Jessup became aware of a woman facing major hardships, she started thinking of ways to raise funds to help people here in Springfield. Remembering her experience in Tennessee, she tried painting two old chairs, something she had never done before, to see if refinishing could be turned into a moneymaker. That vision led to research in furniture refinishing and, in March 2016 the program was launched. Jessup says this wouldn’t have been possible without the help of Pastor Julia Melgreen, whose compassion and respect from the congregation garnered support.
Jessup says the program is just one part of her role as associate pastor. She preaches once a month; she visits patients, which is helped by her nursing experience. She does fundraising and grant writing. She helps the women build their skills, create resumes and find jobs. One lady is pursuing her nursing degree. Currently, six women are in the program and 21 have been helped since 2016. Jessup points out that it’s not just the women who are helped; what they accomplish helps their families, too.
“This has been emotionally harder than being an oncology nurse, and it brings me great joy. I learn so much from the women. Each one has a gift. When a community and a church surround and support these women, they are transformed.”
To keep the program going, donated furniture and paint are needed; people have been generous. “One day we were actually pretty low on furniture. Someone pulled up to our door driving a horse-trailer. It was full of furniture.”
The restored furniture is sold three times a year; the next sale will be July 24. “When the women see what they have accomplished, they are amazed.” The sales have raised $80,000 to date, which isn’t all that is needed to pay the women, and so Jessup writes grants and raises funds.
Jessup grew up in Salem, Illinois, and attended St. John’s for her nursing degree. She received her bachelor’s and master’s in nursing at UIS and SIU-Edwardsville, respectively. She was ordained in June of 2017.
“Networking with the Springfield community is part of the success of the program,” Jessup says.
Volunteers can help paint alongside the women on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 6-8 p.m. “People come in their painting clothes – high school students earning community service hours, retirees, church members. It isn’t obvious who is in the program or not – people just paint together and learn about each other.” On Thursdays people can arrange for a Paint Night with their friends, painting and sharing stories with the women in the program.
Even though Jessup says, “I can think of many women in Springfield who should receive this award more than I should,” it is obvious her calling to the ministry has had a profound influence on many.
BY SCOTT FAINGOLD
“People often ask, do I think there is an increase in the number of sexual assaults? We have no way of knowing,” said Polly Poskin, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault (ICASA), headquartered in Springfield. “What we do know is there is an increase in requests for the services. We think that is due in large part because the services became available, so there is a safe and helpful place to go. People know they will get the support and they know they will be believed.”
Poskin grew up in Thawville, a small, rural community in Iroquois County, as one of seven children. “My mother was an active Republican and my dad was a quiet Democrat, so I learned early on about accommodating different points of view. I consider that a big plus in my life,” she said. She earned her master’s degree in American History from Illinois State University (her thesis was on the National Women’s Trade League of America, an early-20th century effort to organize women in industry and the trades). In the early 1980s, she worked for the Women’s Alliance, an organization which provided a forum for women’s issues in the Springfield community and also worked on the campaign to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in Illinois (legislation which finally passed the state Senate in April 2018, more than three decades later).
In 1982, Poskin interviewed for executive director at ICASA and was hired for the position she has held ever since. “Ronald Reagan was president then and he created block grants so, for the first time in the history of our nation, there were funds for rape crisis and rape prevention,” she said. One of the coalition’s first projects under Poskin’s leadership was a major revision of the state’s sex crime statutes. “We were learning that not only women are sexually abused and sexually assaulted, so are boys and men,” she said. “Our laws were very archaic at the time. They only addressed rape defined as a crime of male perpetration against female and that’s not the true spectrum of sexual abuse and sexual assault.” Poskin believes that the changes they carried out helped catapult both the issue and the ICASA into the public eye. “We gained credibility and legitimacy in the legislative and criminal justice worlds and became better known to the community, so victims knew where the services were.”
The Victims of Crime Act of 1984 (VOCA) provided resources for the coalition to employ staff and make them available Monday through Friday, while the courts and prosecutors’ offices were open. Ten years later, when the Violence Against Women Act passed in ’94, additional federal money became available. Over this time period, under Poskin’s direction, the ICASA was able to expand from 12 rape crisis centers to the current 30. “We grew from $148,889 in our first block grant to just over $26 million now,” Poskin said, with a mix of wonder and pride in her voice.
The social and cultural landscape has gone through many changes over the decades, with some very dramatic shifts recently. Poskin credits the #metoo movement with transforming people’s thinking and understanding about the pervasiveness of sexual abuse, sexual assault and sexual harassment. “People now see that women have kept these experiences to themselves because they feared it would damage their careers, they feared they wouldn’t be seen as credible and they feared that the help wouldn’t be there – instead there would be the doubt or the blame or the complete dismissal of their experience.”
Poskin lives in the Harvard Park neighborhood, where she serves as president of its neighborhood association. “I love it – I love our older neighborhoods,” she said. “I’m very committed to our city. I’m grateful that my energy level is such that I can continue to be an advocate.” She also enjoys working in her garden and interacting with her neighbors and family. Poskin is an avid Chicago Cubs fan since her college days and enjoys travel. “My most recent great trip was to Istanbul, Turkey, about four years ago,” she said. “I’m very thankful that I went there at that time as I’m not sure it would be such a great idea to go there now. But what a magnificent city and fabulous culture!”
Poskin is a major booster of Springfield overall, shouting out Maldaner’s, Obed & Isaac’s, Taqueria Moroleon and Incredibly Delicious as favorite local dining spots. She describes herself as an admirer of the reporting at both NPR Illinois and Illinois Times (“I’m not saying that just because you’re sitting here”). “I love our downtown, even though it is underdeveloped,” she said. “I also love the arts community. We are living in a special time in Springfield. It’s a city worth taking stock of and taking pride in.”
BY KAREN ACKERMAN WITTER
Angie Sowle grew up in Keokuk, Iowa, a small town where the YMCA was an integral part of the community and way of life. She loved gymnastics and aspired to have her own gym and train gymnasts. A summer internship at the YMCA in Keokuk between her junior and senior years of college set her on a different career trajectory. Sowle was majoring in Parks and Recreation and Exercise Physiology at Northeast Missouri State University. For her internship she directed a summer program for low-income children. She saw firsthand the profound impact of the YMCA on these children. This was a life-changing experience for her.
Some people know at an early age they want to be a teacher, nurse, or doctor. A career at a YMCA is a more unusual goal. For Sowle, the YMCA has been her calling since that college internship, and her enthusiasm is palpable. While some may think of the Y as simply a place to work out, take a class or learn to swim, it is much more than that. Sowle says the YMCA is a social service agency that is all about service to others and having a positive impact on the people they serve. She can’t imagine anything more inspiring.
When asked what motivates her about the Y, she says “everything.” The YMCA is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to put Christian principles into practice through programs that build a healthy spirit, mind and body for all. The Y is dedicated to building healthy, confident, connected and secure children, adults, families and communities.
Sowle came to the YMCA in Springfield straight out of college at the age of 23 and has devoted her entire career to the YMCA, helping improve the lives of others. Her first job was physical director with responsibilities over the fitness programs. She served in that role for 12 years and was associate executive director for five years. When the Kerasotes facility opened, she became branch manager of the downtown facility. She was appointed CEO when Don Darnell retired in January 2013.
Sowle credits the staff, which she describes as a small army of people working tirelessly to improve the lives of others. For example, she says kids don’t come in just to learn a skill, such as how to swim. Adults support the kids and believe in them. And, staff members help kids believe in themselves. They promote personal development, leadership skills and giving back to others.
Kids aren’t the only ones who benefit from the many classes, programs and activities at the YMCA. For families, there is something for everyone. There are programs for children as young as six months and that extend throughout a lifetime. Social isolation can be a significant concern for seniors, and the Y provides opportunities for social interaction, which can be as beneficial as physical exercise. Many seniors enjoy the Y as a place to interact with others, exercise with people with similar interests and abilities or just hang out and socialize.
Everyone is welcome, and no one is denied service based on background, income, ability or address. Sowle says she is proud of the Y’s expanded reach into the community with over $500,000 in financial assistance helping serve more than 3,100 people.
Plans are on the drawing board to relocate the downtown Y to a new location at Fourth and Carpenter streets. Sowle is excited about this opportunity to further expand the Y’s impact in the Springfield community.
Sowle is devoted to the mission of the YMCA. She especially enjoys “mission moments” at staff meetings, where staff members tell stories that exemplify the Y’s commitment to changing lives and strengthening communities. For example, she was delighted to learn that one of the homeless children who had attended a summer camp made the high school honor roll. Sowle says, “The story of the Y is the people we serve.”
Sowle always has a smile on her face. She says she is constantly moved by the resiliency of the human spirit and people who overcome adversity. She overcame her own adversity when she battled breast cancer many years ago when her children were young. She stepped down from her full-time position that she loved in order to focus on her health and her family. Sowle later returned to continue her passion to help others overcome their adversities and transform their lives.
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