In 1995, with a return to the Chicago Bulls after the first of three retirements, Michael Jordan had hearts aflutter in this city. The greatest basketball player of all time was about to lead the Bulls to a string of three more NBA titles.

Two decades later Jordan has provided another thrill, this time for a smaller audience but one that is no less enthused about his latest victory.

At Casa Central in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, Amanda McMillen, deputy director of children and youth services, said she hasn’t stopped smiling since learning that the social service agency was one of 23 area charities picked to receive proceeds from Jordan’s settlement with the Jewel-Osco and Dominick’s grocery chains.


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Nilda La Luz, executive vice president of Casa Central, called the donation an early Christmas gift.  “We were ecstatic, to say the least,” she said.

The move by Jordan might redeem him to those who had a bitter taste over his lawsuits against the stores. He sued the companies over congratulatory ads they published in 2009 issues of Sports Illustrated to commemorate his induction into the basketball hall of fame. Yes, Jordan had valid claims about rights to his name and image. But did the billionaire really need to seek millions instead of asking for an apologetic ad?

Understandably, that’s all an afterthought to the busy staff at Casa Central, where some programs have been shuttered since Gov. Bruce Rauner imposed budget cuts last spring. Its early learning academy had to stop accepting new children under 5 because of cuts. A computer lab for low-income children and adults in the community has been closed except for use by students in the after-school program.

Jordan’s donation won’t resurrect those programs. That’s still on the state of Illinois, as it should be. But his money will go a long way to boosting kids’ programs at Casa Central, where administrators are still determining how to allocate the funds. There were two conditions to the donation, La Luz said in response to questions about it. The amount must remain confidential and the money must be earmarked for kids.

There is no shortage of kids’ programs among Casa Central’s seven buildings, including three that take up nearly a city block on North California Avenue. La Luz said the center is one of the largest Hispanic social-service agencies in the Midwest and serves 19,000 to 20,000 children and adult residents a year.

It provides transitional apartment-style housing and social services for homeless families, offers vocational training for entry-level jobs and houses a senior-care center visited daily by 80 to 90 older adults. But staff members pride themselves in providing a second a home to neighborhood kids, administrators said.

About 250 kids ages 5 and under, mostly low-income Hispanics from Humboldt Park, Logan Square and West Town are in the early learning program. The youngest kids are visited at home and can be screened for disabilities that require early interventions. Elementary-school students get picked up after school by buses and come for hot meals and help with homework. Middle- and high-school students are offered the same but with more freedom to participate in culinary arts and community service programs.

“They feel safe, cared for,” McMillen said. “They’re getting skills to help them for the future.”

A huge assist from Michael Jordan can only help.


Follow Marlen Garcia on Twitter: @MarlenGarcia777