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WASHINGTON: Former Ald. Shiller finds another calling on West Side

Nichelle Benford (left) and former 46th Ward alderman Helen Shiller. | Provided photo

“When you were sitting in City Hall, seven years ago, did you ever think you would be…? ”  I asked.

“No,” Helen Shiller said.

No way Shiller would be here, toiling to transform four raw walls into a café at West Harrison Street and South California Avenue, deep on Chicago’s West Side.  Yet, there she is, chatting, as dust is flying, hammers thudding, workers hustling.

OPINION

The former 46th Ward alderman is eons away from her six-term run, when she ferociously fought against gentrification and advocated for social justice. Many in the ward hated her for it and ferociously battled back.

In 2010, she retired, declaring she was done with politics. Love or hate her, Shiller left a legacy of advocating for affordable housing, accessible city services and equitable education, crowned with the $151 million Wilson Yards retail and residential complex.

Now Shiller is turning 70, and overseeing a restaurant build-out, the latest in many projects she has spearheaded at the Westside Justice Center.

Three years ago, Brendan Shiller, her son and a criminal defense attorney, found a sprawling complex of vacant buildings, for his firm, Shiller Preyar, and another firm, Burch & Associates.

It morphed. “Brendan had a vision, and I figured out how to implement it,” Helen Shiller recalled.

She deployed decades of experience in government, public policy and advocacy, serving as building rep, trouble shooter, and connector.

The 21,000-square-foot complex now hosts two law firms, several sole practitioners and three non-profits.  It’s a unique law cooperative offering “holistic legal defense.” The lead nonprofit, also named the Westside Justice Center, links legal minds and social services to serve people in need.

People like Nichelle Benford, who will soon open her Dream Chef Kitchen on the center’s ground floor.

In 2012, Brendan Shiller defended Benford. Her boyfriend was accused of arson. She provided his alibi.  She was caught in a lie, convicted, and served 14 months in federal prison.

“I committed perjury and obstruction of justice to protect him. And being in prison made me look at things differently,” Benford said. “You know you can be a leader and you have this power … ”

When she was released, she resumed her beloved catering business. “I’ve been cooking since I was four. I got my first cookbook at 5.”

She built a hefty client list, then reached out to Brendan. The Shillers helped her get a $50,000 “micro loan” from Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives, which offers support to start-ups who can’t get traditional loans.

Benford, a former model, is 36, but looks 26. Beautiful, optimistic, tenacious.

“I knew this would happen,” she said. “But you don’t know how it’s going to happen, or what it will take.”

The tears flow. “I was in prison five years ago. I was in prison. And I have a restaurant now.”

Benford hopes Dream Chef Kitchen will be an oasis in a food desert, drawing the lawyers and clients from the center and area courthouses, cops from the nearby police station. Benford plans to hire ex-offenders.

The Westside Justice Center will “help people identify ways in which they can take back their lives,” Shiller said. “It’s about creating the tools and opportunities so people can be who they can be.”

On Nov. 10, Shiller will be honored at a birthday fund-raiser to support the Westside Justice Center.  For more information about “Helen 7.0: Resilient and Relentless,” visit www.westsidejustice.org.

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