When youth activist Zair Menjivar first got the mysterious email inviting him to join a Zoom meeting with Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office, he thought it was junk mail.
Then he received a text message from someone at the mayor’s office informing him it was serious.
Menjivar, an 18-year-old high school senior, learned last week he is the youngest person to receive Chicago’s Mayoral Medal of Honor.
The new award is the first of its kind and will honor 18 organizations and individuals that have contributed time, money and effort to help communities throughout the city struggling during the pandemic. A ceremony will be live streamed April 20.
Menjivar, who represents the Belmont Cragin Youth Leadership Council, used his organization, which had been working to build bike trails in the Belmont Cragin area, to deliver food to community members who had difficulty buying groceries due to unemployment.
“When I started, I didn’t want to do anything more than just get out of the house,” Menjivar said. “To see that I’ve worked so hard with the community and we’ve done so much, to the point where I can get recognized on a city-wide level, that’s absolutely astonishing.”
Daniel Anello, CEO of Kids First Chicago, is receiving the award for his internet access program, Chicago Connected, which provided internet to 62,000 students in Chicago Public Schools who had to shift online due to COVID restrictions.
“It was moving to have someone acknowledge the work you do every day, because it’s important to you,” Anello said.
One of the groups being honored - Pui Tak Center - provided services like food distribution, small business support and vaccine rollout to Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, who have been especially hard hit during the pandemic. They also helped students in their English as a Second Language classes apply for unemployment.
“The organization is being recognized,” said David Wu, the center’s executive director. “I guess some of the attention is to me, but it is really to the commitment and hard work of people in Chicago that are stepping up to help our community during something that we’ll never see again in the rest of our lives.”
Here’s a list of all the recipients:
Brad McConnell - CEO of Allies for Community Business, which helped raise over $116 million in the Chicago Resiliency Fund to loan to struggling small businesses, especially businesses in low-income areas as well as Black-, Latinx- and women-owned businesses.
Daniel Anello - CEO of Kids First Chicago, which provided internet to households with the Chicago Connected access program.
Natasha Smith-Walker - CEO of Project Exploration, which delivers STEM education programs to under-served communities.
Dr. Allison Arwady - Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, who has led the city’s response efforts to COVID-19.
Dr. Helene Gayle - President of The Chicago Community Trust, which shifted funding in response to the pandemic.
Chef Erick Williams - Founder of Virtue, a fine-cuisine restaurant in Hyde Park that provided free meals to health workers at local hospitals.
Dr. Nick Turkal - A doctor who came out of retirement to lead the medical team at the McCormick Place alternate care facility.
Rosa Escareno - Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, which helped provide financial support to small business owners struggling due to the pandemic.
Zair Menjivar - Menjivar and the Belmont Cragin Youth Council delivered food to residents in their neighborhood.
Greater Chicago Food Depository - A massive food distribution program that delivers to community food pantries across the Chicago area.
Federally Qualified Health Centers - The 22 Federally Qualified Health Centers throughout Chicago helped provide healthcare assistance to underserved communities regardless of insurance, ability to pay or citizenship status.
Rush University Medical Center - One of Chicago’s largest hospitals, Rush is being recognized for mobilizing testing efforts at the start of the pandemic.
Gads Hill Early Childhoods Centers - Provided support to the families of essential workers through home-based outreach and in-person education.
The City of Chicago’s Racial Equity Rapid Response Team - Helped provide mitigation services like testing and treatment to communities of color and established models for addressing long-term inequities in these communities.
CORE - A disaster-relief organization that provided telehealth and free COVID testing in Chicago’s neighborhoods with high cases.
Pui Tak Center - Provided many services including food delivery, vaccine rollout and small business support to Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in Chicago.
Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council Ballet Folklorico - Reorganized their arts program to help the Chicago Youth Service Corps make masks to be distributed in the Back of the Yards neighborhood.
Koval Distillery - Used their distillery to make alcohol-based hand sanitizer for healthcare workers and essential businesses.
The mayor’s office said it will soon announce a similar set of awards for city employees.