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CNN Hero: Chicago cop spotlighted for helping kids in Parkway Gardens

CNN Hero Jennifer Maddox speaks onstage during the CNN Heroes 2017 program at the American Museum of Natural History on Dec. 17 in New York City. | Mike Coppola/Getty Images for CNN

When Jennifer Maddox got the first call from CNN in November 2016, she was actually at dinner with the culprit who nominated her.

“At first I wasn’t going to answer it, because I thought it was a telemarketer. She said, ‘Can I speak to Jennifer Maddox?’ I said, ‘Who’s calling?’ I thought she was about to try to sell me something,” said Maddox, 46, a Chicago Police officer named one of this year’s top 10 CNN Heroes.

“She said, ‘This is CNN. We heard of all the wonderful work you’re doing, and want to come to Chicago and visit you.’ I’m like, ‘OK . . . ‘”

CNN Heroes has for 11 years honored people from across the globe, “everyday people who have dedicated their lives to change the world.” A 20-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department, Maddox founded Future Ties, a nonprofit after-school and summer program in Woodlawn’s beleaguered Parkway Gardens complex.

Since 2005, Maddox has mostly funded the program out of her own pocket. She does that by working two jobs. Her days begin 7 a.m. at CPD, her 40-hour-a-week job. Her days end at 9 p.m. at Oakwood Community Center, where she puts in an additional 30 hours a week as a community life specialist.

During her off hours, Officer Jennifer Maddox operates her own summer day camp for children in Parkway Gardens, a low-income housing development in Woodlawn. | Mark Brown / Sun-Times file photo

“I get off at 3 p.m., go over to Parkway, check on the program and make sure everything’s OK, then go to my part-time job,” she says. “But Mondays are my day off. Then I’m at the program all day.”

At dinner that night, when Maddox told her son why CNN called, he’d feigned surprise. A month later, she got the nomination letter.

“He said, ‘If I’d told you I was going to nominate you, you’d have told me ‘don’t do it.’ He’s right, of course. I’m not in this for recognition. I do this because I want to,” says the mother of two, who is assigned to CPD’s Office of Community Affairs. There, she works to strengthen police and community relations.

She’s somewhat known in Chicago. But that first CNN call triggered a whirlwind year that has been spent in the national spotlight.

The cable network visited her in Chicago in February, posting her “Hero” video in March. By the time nominations for 2017 heroes closed in September, she was among a few dozen from which 10 finalists would be whittled. Another call came in November.

She’d made the list! It came with a $10,000 award. CNN again visited her, and last month, she appeared in its Top 10 CNN Heroes stories inviting viewers to select “Hero of the Year” via online voting.

The winner was to be crowned at the global broadcast of “CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute” to the 10 finalists, hailing from as far across the globe as South Africa. “Hero of the Year” would get $100,000.

Friends and supporters of course tried to break the internet. Voting ended Dec. 12. And on Dec. 17, Maddox and her mother, Kimberly Maddox, traveled to New York for the event hosted by Anderson Cooper and Kelly Ripa.

Jennifer Maddox speaks onstage during CNN Heroes 2017 at the American Museum of Natural History on Dec. 17 in New York City. Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

A mother of two children with Down syndrome, who started a Wilmington, North Carolina, coffee shop employing 40 people with disabilities, took home the top honor. But through Jan. 7, all donations made to the 10 nonprofits via CrowdRise.com will be matched by Subaru, up to $50,000 each. Entering Christmas weekend, Maddox had raised $27,500.

She says any additional money is just icing, after being feted so beautifully.

She was introduced by none other than Chicago rapper Common, who talked of the violence robbing childhoods in the 35-building complex at 64th & King Drive; and of the safe haven Maddox offers them through recreation and academics, life skills and mentoring.

“There’s a place called Parkway Gardens Homes. It’s in the neighborhood . . . where Jennifer Maddox grew up,” Common said. “When she was young, the music from the streets used to be filled with these lovely notes: kids playing, balls bouncing, the poetry of a fierce round of double-dutch, and the chorus of parents and neighbors saying, ‘You be good. I got my eyes on you.’ Now, it’s the pop of guns, and screams of sirens.”

Last year, the cousin of NBA superstar Dwyane Wade was killed by gang gunfire at the complex while pushing her baby in a stroller. In a separate attack, a 15-year-old was stabbed to death by a 13-year-old whose mother supplied the knife. Earlier this year, in an equally high-profile tragedy, an 11-year-old sitting in a van was shot in the head at the complex.

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“[Maddox] found an empty room, and turned it into ‘Future Ties’ . . . And inside those walls, the music of opportunity, love and hope take hold in a city that can be consumed with grief,” Common said. Myriad celebrities of film and music also paid tribute.

“It was just an experience I’ll never forget,” Maddox beams.

“And the positive exposure for Parkway has just been great. Since November, people from all over the world have been calling and wanting to volunteer and donate. My kids, they’re excited, because I told them, ‘You guys know anything I can get my hands on, I’m going to use it to get us a bigger space.’”