It takes authentic passion and compassion about serving communities to make transformative change in places like Little Village, a popular neighborhood located in the heart of Chicago, Illinois. Its more than 90,000 residents, primarily immigrants, is where Central States SER (CSS) is making a dramatic impact, especially among opportunity youth ages 16-24. The term is used in describing young men and women who dropped out of school, are unemployed or underemployed, and need individualized wrap-around services to prepare for today’s workforce. Chicago’s gang activity is massive and very prevalent in Little Village, inevitably touching the lives of every resident. CSS youth staff are intimately knowledgeable in serving this particular population. Indeed, this is the setting where the team at CSS makes it their life’s mission to see beyond the person sitting in front of them today and instead envision how SER can transform their futures.
“Their work revolves around the people facing challenging situations every day,” says Manuela M. Zarate, Vice-President and Chief Operations Officer of SER Metro Detroit (SMD). “We all realize that we share many of the same beliefs and commitments to serving our community. For us, making an impact in the neighborhoods is being right where the people are; being where they live and work, so they see you every day, not in remote executive offices on State Street or Michigan Avenue in Downtown Chicago. CSS is embedded in communities like Little Village or reaching across Greater Chicago, Cook and Kane Counties, and the State of Illinois at large. CSS and SERCO in Illinois offer a wide range of services for youth and adults of all ages. These include after-school tutoring and mentoring, GED, vocational and pre-apprenticeship training; in partnership with Apple, we offer Coding and STEM, among many other services. SERCO in Illinois is the South Suburban American Jobs Center operator in North Riverside, Il, and a training partner of the Kane County Workforce Board in Aurora, Il. We are essentially among the people we serve,” she adds. For Zarate, that same clear focus of purpose continues to be a hallmark of her career and understanding of what it means to help an individual who walks into a SER site today. “I say to our staff, always look at the person that’s coming in for a service with care and respect. That’s the only way you’re going to be able to assess their needs – by caring truly. You have to make sure that we not only look at the immediate needs, but how can we open additional opportunities for that person? The answer may come, not just through the person sitting in front of you; rather, it may be that we need to help the family to address other, underlying challenges they are facing,” she adds.
The Little Village team at SER is focused on outreach and education within one of America’s most diverse inner-city neighborhoods in the Midwest. Team members attribute the successes of CSS to understanding firsthand what residents need and the services that can help address those needs. “As servant leaders and role models, we have to remember who our customers are and what they expect from us. This purpose is why we are here and entrusted with public funding. This work is how we meet our responsibilities,” says Zarate.
Zarate says CSS and SERCO in Illinois have achieved respect for consistently meeting and exceeding the benchmarks of program performance. Its stakeholder partners include the State of Illinois, the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership, the City of Chicago, the Illinois Department of Human Services, the Kane County Workforce Board, and many other governmental agencies, foundations, and philanthropists. “We have to be accountable to them while at the same time remembering that the most important measures of our work are the results that we see in the people we serve,” she adds.
Zarate cites one example of that holistic approach to community service that now includes offering more than 100 different social service programs and services across a broad spectrum. “We have one particular program that transformed our service delivery model through a grant we received back in 2008 to start the Center for Working Families.
The project is a financial education program that acts as an umbrella incorporating financial literacy and education, income supports, and workforce development into every service and program we offer. These services are available to the community at large. In this program, we take a deep dive into the participant’s financial needs and explore additional economic supports they might need. We then qualify our participants for the most suitable services: financial aid, public support, and a comprehensive financial education package offered in partnership with partner financial institutions while working towards their self-sufficiency. The goal is to help them through transformative change that breaks a socio-economic cycle so they can become self-sustaining long-term.”
Zarate and the CSS leadership team share another passion readily apparent to anyone who speaks with them. They see their role in their work as planting seeds of social change for future generations. “In Chicago, I know we are making an impact beginning with staff,” says Zarate. “Many of them are former program participants and come out of challenging backgrounds themselves, so they know in very personal terms the kind of help our customers are desperately seeking, and they do everything they can to reach out and take the hand that the system has often slapped away. We may well be the first and only people who have ever said to that young man or woman, I believe in you, or I know you can do it. Those simple gestures can mean so much to people, and we never know when we will have that opportunity.”
Manuela M. Zarate and the CSS leadership team exemplify the true spirit of people serving people. Zarate’s journey from a young student applicant to eventually becoming one of the organization’s top leaders results from answering a personal calling of caring for others. “At SER, we are all innovators, so we continuously reinvent ourselves. Together, we will continue to lead SER to be consistently present and relevant to the needs of those we serve. So, even if the entire world was employed and well trained, we can be sure to find a way to provide needed services. This is because people’s lives are always changing, and human nature is to want to improve and advance,” concludes Zarate.
With the dedication of that caliber, there is no doubt that Little Village and Greater Chicago will continue to benefit from the services of Central States SER.