Former slaves had settled eastern Kankakee County in the 1860s. Runaway slave Joseph "Pap" Tetter and his large family founded the Village of Hopkins Park on 42 acres that would be subdivided and sold, with revenues used to support the Underground Railroad. Further waves of black farmers came during the Great Migration in the 1910's and especially during the Great Depression of the 1930's. Even then, land was still available for black farmers to settle because much of Pembroke Township's soil was seen as marginal, according to documents from the Kankakee County Museum.
Pembroke is often referred to as "forgotten," but in some ways it's not; over the past 40 years, it's been the subject of pieces by the Tribune, the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Times, the Oprah Winfrey Show, People, and CBS. This small rural community of less than 1,000 residents has a rich history that should be preserved and celebrated. Unfortunately, yet today, there is much work to be done in the Village of Hopkins Park to achieve sustainability. The median income for a household in the village is a mere $17,009. The per capita income is a meager $13,374. Pembroke Township and Hopkins Park residents must travel five miles to St. Anne to access a grocery store, police department, pharmacy, or barber shop.
In late 2010, Kankakee County Community Services Inc., the local Community Action Agency in Kankakee County, initiated the services of ICADC to address the extreme poverty conditions faced by Hopkins Park residents. ICADC partnered with the Rural Community Assistance Program, sponsored by the Illinois Association of Community Action Agencies, to begin providing intense technical assistance and capacity building services.
Much of 2011 was spent in the trenches with Hopkins Park staff staving off code red issues with infrastructure, housing, accountability, reporting, and compliance. The majority of these issues presented major health and safety concerns for Hopkins Park residents. It was vital to our success that we not only find the "fix" to these problems, but we teach and build a relationship along the way. The Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity played a major role in our success in that Community Development Assistance Program (CDAP) funds had been previously awarded to the Village to address infrastructure issues. ICADC was able to refocus these funds to maximize the grant's impact.
By 2012, a relationship with Village staff was well established. ICADC gained trust from the leadership and staff and a commitment to work together to achieve sustainability. Many of the critical needs had been previously addressed allowing ICADC and Hopkins Park to be able to begin establishing a more proactive approach. Over the course of the year, policies, procedures, and budgets were put into place giving structure and functionality to everyday activity. Staff turnover that once plagued Village Hall and made capacity development impossible, dramatically reduced. Today, Village staff form a cohesive team often using ICADC as the buffer when developing their own protocol.
To date, deliverables that have been achieved include:
ICADC's strategy in Hopkins Park is simple. It can be summed up in the analogy of "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." Our goal is not to administer programs, but to develop the capacity of the people. The focus of our work has not been to achieve the deliverables themselves, but to impart invaluable skillsets with Village staff that could be learned out of achieving the deliverable. Skillsets that have been developed or enhanced include:
The proof of our success in Hopkins Park is not in what we have achieved, but rather in what its residents go on to achieve by applying the skills and knowledge imparted on them in other areas of the community. We have already witnessed the transfer of knowledge in the following activities:
Although great progress has been made within the Village of Hopkins Park, we still have much work to do. In the year to come, we look forward to refining and adding to what has been already put in place. Our partnership with the Rural Community Assistance Program to provide an all-encompassing economic development team to focus on not only housing, but water, wastewater, and infrastructure issues, has proven to be a successful model for helping this deeply distressed community. In the future, we would like to replicate this approach in other communities throughout Illinois.