South Side mom expands after-school program with UChicago's support

Engagement initiatives help community leader Jennifer Maddox

Jennifer Maddox didn’t plan to start a nonprofit in the Parkway Gardens Homes on Chicago’s South Side. The Chicago police officer, who was working a second job as a security officer in the low-income housing complex 10 years ago, was just looking for a room where kids could go after school to be safe and have fun.

When Maddox sees an opportunity to do more, though, she grabs it. That drive kept her expanding and improving her organization, Future Ties, as a resource against the endemic violence and poverty at Parkway Gardens. And it made her a perfect match for two programs led by the University of Chicago’s Office of Civic Engagement: the Civic Leadership Academy and the Community Programs Accelerator.

As a police officer and the founder of a nonprofit, Maddox is the first academy fellow in the program’s three cohorts who works in both the government and nonprofit realms.

“She has a pragmatic sensibility—she’s interested in hearing about what really works,” said William Howell, the Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics at the Harris School of Public Policy. Howell also is the faculty director for the Civic Leadership Academy, the University’s interdisciplinary certificate program for emerging leaders at nonprofits and public agencies in the city of Chicago.

Her strong commitment to the community has helped her gain national attention. In March she was featured as a CNN Hero, and this week she appeared on the “Steve Harvey Show” as part of a Mother’s Day week special on “supermoms.” Maddox has two adult sons.

Maddox does not see herself as a hero—just as someone who saw the need for a safe place for the 1,200 kids living in the complex without a playground or a park.

“The issue is a lot of kids in after-school hours just don’t have anything to do, so they’re creating something to do and it’s trouble,” said Maddox, who asked the management at Parkway Gardens if she could use an empty room in the basement to set up board games for kids after school.

When daily attendance went from a few dozen kids each afternoon to more than a hundred, Maddox asked parents to volunteer. Soon after, she partnered with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services to employ local mothers who needed work experience to receive benefits.

By 2011—spurred in part by fire inspectors who told her that the program’s runaway popularity meant the basement room was crowded past capacity—Maddox turned Future Ties into an official 501(c)3 nonprofit and began focusing on academic after-school programming for elementary school students, supported by local teen volunteer tutors.

When Parkway Gardens’ new management company offered the nonprofit a contract for after-school services, Maddox hired six of the parent volunteers as staff. Future Ties began working with the Greater Food Depository to replace the chips Maddox was buying in bulk with hot food. Now more than 100 kids participate in a new summer program at a local school, attending field trips to roller skating rinks and the beach.

As Future Ties became larger and more complex, Maddox looked for support and found it in UChicago’s Community Programs Accelerator, which provides technical assistance to strengthen community-based organizations on the mid-South Side.

“At first I said, ‘Why do I need to put together a budget to show funders? I’m just buying snacks. I’ve got the receipts for it all—can’t I just show them that?’” said Maddox with a laugh. “[But] it was the best thing. The accelerator has helped us grow and sustain the organization so much.”

Over the last three years, the Community Programs Accelerator has helped Future Ties create a budget and other materials for grant proposals, build its nonprofit board, write a strategic plan, revamp its website and start social media. Last summer, UChicago students even helped out by working with kids at the nonprofit’s camp.

“Jennifer is a joy to work with,” said Ryan Priester, associate director for community programs at the Office of Civic Engagement. “We like to think that our help has made a difference.”

It was Priester who suggested Maddox apply for the Civic Leadership Academy. Leadership also plays an important role in Maddox’s other job in the CPD’s Office of Community Affairs, where she works to help officers on community engagement—breaking down the distrust and lack of communication that is a factor in the challenging relations between police and residents in low-income neighborhoods.

A big goal of the academy is to build a network among the fellows, so they can advise each other and provide connections in their work. For example, Laura Markin, the strategy implementation manager for the University of Chicago Medicine and a fellow in Maddox’s CLA cohort, has brought colleagues to Parkway Gardens to launch a recovery program this spring for families after experiencing or witnessing violence. “A lot of shootings take place in Parkway. We want to do more with those who are still living with the trauma,” Maddox said.  

Maddox and her colleagues at Future Ties said they can see changes in her leadership style since she joined the academy. For one, Maddox said she thinks about how to give her nonprofit staff more autonomy. That’s important because the organization works to develop parents as well as kids and to break the cycle of generational poverty.

“She takes our perspective, and she teaches us whatever she learns,” said Shaquita Wells, a mother from Parkway Gardens who has been with the organization for more than five years and is now a supervisor and a college student. “Jennifer is the definition of extraordinary. I’ve never met someone like her before.”