By Allison Matyus
The story of Chicago’s Erie Neighborhood House goes as far back as the 1800s. Since 1870, the goal has always been to provide, educate and empower immigrants in the community. Now, with the renewal of a $15,000 grant from the Comcast Foundation, Erie House can continue its mission for a whole new generation.
Erie House first began as a church where immigrants could find a place of acceptance. Back in 1870, the main population of those who came to Erie House consisted of Dutch and Scandinavians.
A lot has changed since then, as Erie House now has three different sites throughout Chicago, serves primarily Latinos, hosts a number of educational programs and is a registered non-profit organization.
Brian Praff, the director of marketing and communications at Erie House, said the 10 different programs reach over 5,500 people every year. The programs consist of workforce development, youth-focused activities, language learning and after school initiatives. The Visionaries Program will benefit from Comcast’s grant renewal.
“It’s a unique program that equips students with skills and teaches them about telling stories through media arts,” Praff said. “Comcast has really been a founding partner of the program since the beginning.”
The Visionaries Program began in 2009 and serves as an apprenticeship for students ages 14 to 18. Riza Falk, the digital media coordinator at Erie House, said that the after school program fills in the artistic holes that students don’t always get during their regular school hours.
“As arts programs and electives are being taken away in schools, students have no outlet for those kinds of things,” she said. “[The students] work to use art as a way to express themselves and hopefully make social change in their own communities.”
Students learn photography, video, graphic design, journalism, entrepreneurship skills and more through the Visionaries Program. Praff said the students start their own businesses and sell items through Etsy and are a part of several Made in Chicago Markets that happen throughout the year.
About 15 to 20 students participate in the program that has three cycles every year, and the success stories that come out of these students are proof enough of the program’s success.
“One student that came to us was failing out of high school and was pretty much ready to drop out, but after he started coming to the program he began doing amazing things,” Falk said. “Now he is in his sophomore year of college and sometimes comes back to help with the program.”
Ethan Velez is currently participating in this cycle of the Visionaries Program and said he has already learned so much. He said he has taken a strong interest in photography and even wants to pursue it for a future career.
“I like being able to capture my community on camera and seeing [the community] in a different way through the lens,” Velez said. “The program has definitely changed my life and I plan on continuing to do it.”
Comcast’s grant renewal will go towards keeping the program running for students like Velez to continue to learn the importance of digital media and the arts.
“Comcast’s initial grant gave us the ability to build a Mac lab and get [Adobe] Creative Suite. The renewals we have been getting have helped keep things updated, especially since technology is always changing,” Falk said. “I think it’s really great that we have Comcast’s support for this program.”