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:: By Mary Ruth Yoe

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Chicago Journal ::

How the city that works, works

Pouring off the bus parked outside Ida Noyes Hall came raincoated women (and more than a sprinkling of men), headed for the mid-September symposium that kicked off the 58th annual Know Your Chicago program.

“We’re very proud of all of you for swimming here today,” Know Your Chicago chair Jean Meltzer, U-High’41, welcomed the hundreds of participants who soon filled the Max Palevsky Cinema. Fortified by coffee and tea, their cell phones turned off and their notebooks pulled out, they sat ready for three morning lectures, a lunch break, and two afternoon talks. Each presentation introduced one of five daylong tours of local venues (from a Hindu temple to a children’s advocacy center) scheduled for September or October. Because each tour (repeated on consecutive days) is limited to approximately 120 people, everyone who registers for the introductory symposium enters a lottery to earn spots on one or more tours.

The day’s first presenter was Bryan Samuels, AM’93, whose talk, “DCFS 101: Foster Kids are Our Kids Too,” provided background for “Children at Risk: Safe Havens,” a tour of social-service agencies with which the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) works. Samuels has directed DCFS since 2003; the average tenure for a child-services director in the United States, he told the group, is just 18 months. Continuity is also an issue, of course, for kids in substitute care, a population that this year includes 16,700 Illinois children 18 or younger and another 1,500 youth between the ages of 19 and 21. That’s down from a total of 51,000 in 1997, when the DCFS caseworker-to-child ratio was 50:1; today it’s 14:1.

Taking a “kid-based focus” and emphasizing its role “as surrogate parents,” Samuels said, DCFS works to “build bridges for these young people back to the community, so that they have a support system when they leave us.”

Begun in 1948 by Chicago civic leader Mary Ward Wolkonsky as a lecture series to encourage more women to participate in city life, Know Your Chicago is now sponsored by the University’s Graham School of General Studies and organized by a 50-woman volunteer committee. Planning begins “at the end of the tour season,” said vice chair Jean Berghoff, “when we evaluate the past year, brainstorm ideas, list them all, and vote.” The aim “is an eclectic mix—we try not to have all education, all social service, or all city politics.” The 2006 season is a case in point, with “Chicago Museums: Relevant and Reinvented,” “Mystical, Magical India,” “Rejuvenating the Brain,” and “Argonne: Science for Today and Tomorrow” filling the schedule—and the tour buses.