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Vicky Joseph: Helping Families Survive and Thrive

Vicky Joseph founded Families Helping Families 17 years ago as a way to give back to those in need.

UPDATE: Vicky Joseph has been chosen as Huffington Post's Greatest Person of the Day, a feature which spotlights stories of people across the nation who are confronting major issues and making a difference in their community. Congratulations, Vicky!

One woman’s sacrifice at the risk of losing her life more than 60 years ago and more than 4,000 miles away made more than a difference in the life of Vicky Joseph—it could very well be the reason she is alive. 

Joseph, the founder of nonprofit Families Helping Families, was “haunted” by the idea of a mother not being able to provide for her children. The idea spawned from her mother’s experience as a Holocaust survivor in the Netherlands. 

Without the help of a young woman, who celebrated her 91st birthday last week, Joseph’s mother Evelyn Markell, 77, might have perished. At the risk of death or torture at the hands of the Nazis, Jeanne Dusorren, hid Markell and her family until they were safely smuggled out of the country, Joseph said.

“Without this lady who hid my mom from the Nazis, I wouldn’t be here, my kids wouldn’t be here,” she said. “There was always a belief that you give back. You have a concern for your neighbor."

Joseph, who was in the Netherlands last week with her mother celebrating Dusorren’s birthday, said she knew that giving back to others was something she had to do. Then, one day 17 years ago she had the idea that she wanted to help a single mother in need. 

She set out to achieve her goal and contacted Bridge Communities, an organization that provides transitional housing for families in need and explained that she wanted to adopt a family and help pay the rent for a year. She said the nonprofit was welcoming and saw no reason it couldn’t partner with her, though its partners were mostly churches.

Taking to her subdivision, posting fliers at neighbors’ homes Joseph sought to gather donations to help a family. The money started coming in and she gathered $8,000. Not enough for a full year of housing, but a start, she said.

The donations kept coming in from churches, schools, scouts, she said.

“The community is so generous,” Joseph said. “If there is a need they respond.”

Initially, she wasn’t looking past the first family, she said, but the money kept coming in and Families Helping Families began.

Changing families' futures

The nonprofit provides temporary housing, mentoring and supportive services for families in need, but it is “very much a program,” Joseph said. There are rules that must be followed and work that must be done for the families that participate. 

The first two years the nonprofit helped four families and back then they rented apartments on the open market. Now, the organization has 10 families at a time and rents from Bridge Communities, which owns several apartment buildings in Naperville. The nonprofit pays $815 month for rent and utilities, but that is only half of the cost of serving its clients, Joseph said.

The other costs are related to social services the families receive. The mothers who are accepted into the program meet with case managers and employment directors. They are also provided with seminars on child rearing and nutrition. The children receive tutoring to help get up to speed in school.

“As long as mom is motivated and has goals and is drug-free and has extracted herself from any domestic violence, we can work with her,” Joseph said. 

The nonprofit’s goal is to make the families self-sufficient. The families are screened by a licensed social worker from Bridge Communities. The mother signs a contract with Families Helping Families agreeing to follow the program’s rules. Typically, a family is in the program for two years.

The clients’ goals vary and while one mother might set a goal to achieve a GED, others may earn bachelor’s degree. One client worked at a meat packing plant when she started with the nonprofit, Joseph said. The woman never considered she could do anything else and she was focused on making ends meet for her family. But, through Families Helping Families she earned her GED and was able to find a job working in an insurance agency. She’s held the job for 10 years.

When locals heard what Joseph was doing, she was asked to speak before churches and groups, she said. When she was asked to talk at St. Timothy’s Lutheran Church she said Neal Gerald approached her and said he was in the transportation business if she needed anything. She said she was so naive at the time she didn’t realize he owned car dealerships. 

Just as Gerald asked how he could help, other people sought to assist, whether dentists providing services for all of the clients or volunteers stepping up to mentor the families.

“I think they like the idea that our program really helps to change a family’s future,” Joseph said. “When people tell me they want to volunteer I ask them do you want to help a lot of people a little or a few people a lot?”

"It takes a village"

Recently Joseph had breakfast with a client who after three years in the program was moving out. Saying goodbye was a very emotional, but happy event.

“You go through all of these life experiences with people, it really changes who you are,” she said. “It’s made me a fearless advocate. Because at the beginning, I might have been hesitant or too shy to ask for what I need for a client.”

For some of the families finding so many people willing to help can be overwhelming and they may wonder why anyone wants to help them when so many people have let them down, she said.

“I remember sitting around the kitchen table with a client, Nya … she said, ‘I get it. You just care about me. You don’t want anything from me except for me to be what I want to be.’ It was quite a moment.” 

At the heart of the program are money, financial literacy, financial responsibility and discipline, Joseph said. Many of the clients have never had a bank account and don’t realize the importance of having a relationship with a banking institution.

Families Helping Families has partnered with Hawthorne Credit Union, which developed a financial training program for the nonprofit’s clients, she said.

“It takes a village,” she said. “It may be a worn, trite phrase, but we have quite a village in Naperville.”

Not every family that starts in the program remains and some families are asked to leave if they cannot abide by the rules, which is never easy for Joseph. But, the majority of the clients are grateful for the help they receive.

Some clients have gone on to buy homes, earn college degrees and even send their children to college.

When asked how starting the nonprofit has changed her life, Joseph said: “I wake up grateful and go to bed grateful.”

Jody Bender January 11, 2012 at 03:24 PM
What a beautiful portrait of a very special person! Vicky is an incredible advocate for Families Helping Families and inspires everyone she meets. Thank you for this portrait of her and great information about her charity.

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