When Christa Hamilton walked through the doors of UCAN Chicago (Uhlich Children’s Advantage Network) last week, she became the first African American and first woman to lead one of Chicago’s oldest social service agencies.
Founded as a Civil War orphanage, the 152-year-old North Lawndale organization serves more than 21,000 youth who have suffered trauma, either wards of the state or in the larger community, with a dozen programs supporting youth and families on the West Side and South Side.
Raised in Englewood, Hamilton feels an intrinsic connection to clients served by UCAN in communities impacted by poverty and crime. She was the first in her family to attend college. But now the 40-year-old is a star in the social services sphere.
“In the social services world, UCAN is a big deal. I’m extremely honored to be the person to pivot the history here,” said Hamilton.
“I’m grateful we have a board of directors bold enough to change the trajectory of the leadership and make it reflective of both the community that we serve and our workforce.”
She comes to the role after serving as CEO of Centers for New Horizons for seven years, passed the baton by that 50-year-old organization’s founder and education pioneer Dr. Sokoni Karanja in 2014. She joined Centers in 2011, previously managing its workforce development programs.
Under Hamilton’s leadership, Centers significantly expanded its programming, doubling its budget and staff — from $8 million to $18 million, and from 150 employees to more than 300.
“The services UCAN provides align with what I have done at Centers, the programs that I grew. So I felt qualified to lead this organization into its next chapter,” Hamilton said.
“Understanding its long history — 152 years of not having a woman or African American at the helm — I thought if any time was a great time to be in this position, that time would be now,” she said.
Casting a social safety net long before its more famous peer, the 132-year-old Jane Addams Hull House, UCAN, with a $46 million budget and 650 employees, originally was based on Chicago’s Northwest Side.
It relocated in 2015, building its $43 million, 7-acre Drost-Harding Campus at 3605 W. Fillmore, where it operates the 70-room Diermeier Therapeutic Youth Home for troubled wards.
The agency provides foster and teen parenting programs; transitional, independent living and other housing support; workforce and youth development programs. It runs two therapeutic day schools in Beverly and Humboldt Park.
Its sprawling North Lawndale campus has become a community anchor, with more than 80 groups using meeting space at its Nichols Center headquarters.
UCAN was founder of the North Lawndale Athletic and Recreation Association — community organizations collaborate to provide sports and extracurricular activities for neighborhood youth at its Arthur L. Turner Gymnasium.
And the campus hosts the Circuit Court of Cook County’s lauded Restorative Justice Community Court. First of its kind in Illinois, the initiative weekly brings nonviolent crime victims face-to-face with offenders to work out a resolution in a peace circle.
“Our Governing Board unanimously voted to appoint Christa Hamilton president and CEO. We firmly believe we have chosen the right executive leader for UCAN at the right time, given her demonstrated success as a nonprofit professional and career as a leader who is adept at addressing community needs and program efficiency,” said UCAN Board Chair Markell Bridges.
Hamilton, who holds an M.B.A., spent six years in management at Walgreens corporation, then three years as a workforce consultant with the U.S. Department of Labor, before feeling called to transition into nonprofit work.
“We are proud that Christa is the first African American and first woman to lead UCAN in our esteemed history,” Bridges said. “We believe her appointment is a significant milestone.”
A resident of Chatham and mother of two, Hamilton succeeds Thomas Vanden Berk, UCAN’s president of 28 years, who has served in an interim capacity since December.
Hamilton is zeroing in on violence intervention and prevention programs run by UCAN in North Lawndale and Roseland — two of 15 Chicago communities that account for 50 percent of the city’s gun violence.
Combating that violence is personal for her. Hamilton’s 21-year-old nephew, Jonathan Johnson, was murdered in Englewood in 2014.
“UCAN’s violence prevention programs are what pulls my heartstrings. When my nephew was killed, I saw how it tore our family apart. So I’m laser-focused on violence. I’ve lived through it and the trauma that comes after you leave the gravesite,” she said.
“My vision is: How do I lead in a way that can possibly reduce this violence, that can possibly stop other families from having to deal with the grief we went through?”
The nonprofit leader believes much of Chicago’s violence can be traced to lack of opportunities in those communities.
In North Lawndale, for example, nearly half the population lives below federal poverty level, and its 15.9 percent unemployment rate is double the city average, which doesn’t include the whopping 46 percent of its population considered out of the workforce.
“North Lawndale has high rates of crime and unemployment, and those are two areas that I spent the last five years of my life focusing on,” said Hamilton.
“Ultimately, the people I’ve met who are participating in antisocial or criminal behavior, they want the same things that we want. But they have behaviors that they need to unlearn. That’s where UCAN steps in,” she said.
“When you give them employment opportunities and mental health support, they can ultimately go on to become very productive members of society,” the millennial added.
“I have met too many young people that have been perpetrators of violence, and I have seen many of them change. So I know it can be done. But it really will take relentless engagement on behalf of organizations like UCAN that are out here doing the work.”