Bringing Out the Best

March 29, 2016 | Chicago, IL

Kirstin Chernawsky

Kirstin Chernawsky reflects on adversity and her new role as executive director as she looks toward securing sustained success for Erie House. FILE PHOTO

Adversity. There’s a widely-held assertion that it can bring out the best qualities of an individual. But with adversity also comes the possibility of failure. And were it not for that potential pitfall, it wouldn’t provide such a compelling narrative that appeals to something deep within the human spirit.

So as new Erie Neighborhood House executive director Kirstin Chernawsky reflects on the adversity she and her organization have faced since last July, she feels great satisfaction.

Illinois entered its state budget impasse on July 1, 2015. Then the senior director of development at Erie House, Chernawsky spent the day advocating for human services with fellow staff and participants in a public demonstration at Chicago’s John R. Thompson Center. It felt like a triumphant moment: Adversity presented itself, the people overcame.

If only it was so simple.

The financial pressure agencies across the state are feeling nine months later was only beginning to mount then, but it was just as real. The board of directors and senior leadership at Erie House identified ways to reduce costs—a prudent response when faced with pending financial pressure—but they also turned to Chernawsky’s development department to seek out new revenue streams.

“If this money isn’t raised…it’s directly impacting staff employment and the number of participants we’re able to serve each year,” she recalls thinking at the time. That outcome was unacceptable for Chernawsky, so she set to work with her team to double down on institutional grants and individual giving.

Later that month she was attending the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) annual conference in Kansas City, Mo., when she detected a lump in her breast. Subsequent doctor’s appointments, a biopsy—and eventually, surgery—confirmed her suspicions. She was diagnosed with Stage 2A invasive ductal carcinoma late that summer.

Chernawsky expresses a great amount of gratitude for the community of support she found at Erie House. “It was beyond incredible,” she says of the countless gestures, flowers, cards and words of encouragement she received. “I knew I was not alone in this fight; I felt so supported and loved.” Her self-described second home, Erie House, was with her every step of the way.

If she needed to scale back some of her work commitments when faced with chemo, radiation and the emotional trauma that accompanies a cancer diagnosis, nobody would have blamed her. Chernawsky instead threw herself more deeply into the task at hand, working to provide Erie House a greater capacity to endure the worsening state budget crisis and flourish in the midst of it.

In the months following her diagnosis, Chernawsky’s department secured more revenue during its year-end appeal than ever before and grossed an unprecedented $550,000 at the agency’s annual Future of Promise fundraising dinner. The development team has already eclipsed its projected total for private grants—with an entire quarter remaining in the fiscal year.

Adversity brought out the best in her, and it did the same for the organization.

A strong foundation for service
Chernawsky’s entire professional career has been invested in the nonprofit sector, and she has drawn great inspiration from observing the sheer resilience of the vulnerable, at-risk individuals with whom she has crossed paths as a result.

Her first glimpse of this resilience came while attending Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora, Ill., when she volunteered at nearby Hesed House, a comprehensive agency serving homeless individuals and families.

“I had the opportunity to serve adults food in a dinner line, make lunches for folks who were not staying the night, and—for the participants who were lucky enough to get a bed there—I was able to volunteer with their kids and read bedtime stories,” she recalls. “It was my first direct-service experience, and I was hooked after that.”

At DePaul University Chernawsky studied sociology. Upon graduating she felt a growing passion about effecting change in society and enrolled in the school’s master of public service program, completing her advanced degree with a focus in nonprofit administration.

By the time she arrived at Erie House in 2013, Chernawsky had gained strong experience leading development efforts at BUILD, Inc., and Northwestern University Settlement House. She immediately flourished in her role as senior director of development and communications.

“Kirstin came with a high level of private fundraising skills at a time when Erie House was facing some significant challenges related to funding,” says former Erie House executive director Celena Roldán of her successor. “She quickly acquainted herself with current partners and donors and began growing new, important relationships that would enable Erie House to survive—and thrive, even—in the midst of the budget crisis.”

“I have always been passionate about the missions of the organizations I’ve worked for,” says Chernawsky, pausing to explain that this is an essential component to successful fundraising. But something felt different with this particular organization and its mission. “When I arrived at Erie House, I knew that this felt like home.”

Roldán points out that Chernawsky embraced her new home, making a concerted effort to learn more about the community Erie House serves. She even joined the board of directors for one of the agency’s partners, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, and now serves as board treasurer.

“You can’t go out there and talk about the mission of Erie House and ask for money if you don’t understand the needs and concerns of the immigrant community,” she explains. “That is important for her.”

The significance of her appointment to the role of executive director is not lost on Chernawsky. While the immigrant struggle isn’t part of her personal experience, she’s not far removed from it. Her grandfather immigrated to the United States from Portugal. Had it not been for a variety of factors that helped him settle here and start a family, her father may not have been the first in her family to graduate from college and she may not be the first to earn an advanced degree.

“It’s very humbling,” she says, pointing out that just 8 individuals precede her in this position. “Our reputation in the community and what we’ve been able to provide for the immigrant community for over 146 years—it’s an honor to be part of that.”

Carrying the mission of Erie House forward
It’s almost too fitting. The same month she marks a milestone in overcoming the adversity of cancer—her radiation treatment concludes on March 30—she faces a whole new set of challenges as executive director of Erie House.

Illinois is still without a state budget. And even when a budget is passed, a lot of funding uncertainty will plague human service providers. Nevertheless, Chernawsky feels Erie House is well-equipped to overcome this adversity.

“Being able to continue deliver the quality services that we provide for our participants and potentially growing those services—even while the state budget crisis is still unfolding—is my most immediate desire,” she says.

Chernawsky also hopes to look internally to identify ways to support staff. “Our staff members—and particularly the frontline staff—are the real experts, so getting a chance to learn from them as to how we can improve and enhance our programs is key to our sustainability.”

Another goal she has is to continue strengthening the presence of Erie House in Little Village. “It’s such a strong community already, but it’s not a community without need,” she says. It’s a community with adversity, in other words, but also one with resilience. “Being able to continue to grow our programming there feels core to our mission and necessary for our participants.”

Listen to her speak for a while and you get the sense that little can shake her confidence in the resilience of her organization. “I want to ensure Erie House is equipped to thrive for another 146 years,” she says.

She knows adversity awaits, but she believes it will bring out the best.


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