Chicago Cares Founder Leslie Bluhm serves up a charitable summer.
When Leslie Bluhm noticed that people in Chicago lacked opportunities to volunteer, she didn’t just create a service organization to serve, for example, public schools. Instead she created a service platform, capable of helping schools, homeless centers, retirement homes or whatever else the city needs. Since its inception 23 years ago, that platform, called Chicago Cares, has activated north of half a million volunteers and enabled the work of more than 750 local nonprofits, executing 250 projects each month to become the Midwest’s largest volunteer service organization. “Our goal is to be nimble,” Bluhm explains. “We don’t go into a community and say, ‘Here’s what we can do for you.’ We go in and listen and figure out what their needs are. Those needs are different in every community and they evolve and change over time.”
Fresh off the success of Chicago Cares’ Chicago Serve-a-thon, which sent 5,000 volunteers into Chicago Public Schools, senior centers and parks earlier this month, Bluhm already has her sights focused on her next big project: One Summer Chicago. The program, done in partnership with the mayor’s office, gives high school students the opportunity to gain leadership skills through community projects like working in homeless shelters, seniors’ centers and classrooms. “We created an incredible program for 200 students [last summer], and it was so successful that we’re taking 350 students for six weeks this summer,” says Bluhm. “We teach those kids to be problem-solvers in their own communities. We teach them about the needs and resources within the entire Chicago community and how they can utilize them.”
Since her very first volunteer experience in junior high, when she worked at a camp for blind children, Bluhm, 50, hasn’t stopped serving — it might just be in her DNA. “My family was always volunteering,” she says of her upbringing. In fact, her family is known for their major acts of giving (see Northwestern University’s Bluhm Cardiovascular Clinic and Bluhm Legal Aid Clinic or the Art Institute’s Bluhm Family Terrace). But the intrepid Bluhm is carving her own path: She and her husband David Helfand created the Bluhm/Helfand Social Innovation Fellowship in 2011. Through the fellowship, the couple gives young social entreprenuers $10,000, as well as connections to a network of business and community leaders. “It’s our way of paying it forward,” says Bluhm.
Through her service efforts and fellowship, Bluhm is out to create a community of lifelong volunteers in Chicago, saying that “after volunteering with us, I think 99 percent of people feel that they have [made] an impact, which means they are much more likely to serve again.” Above all, she believes that volunteering is a way to unify the city. “I think often people feel isolated in their own communities,” she says. “But as soon as we get out there and start working together on a common project, we all realize we have the same hopes and dreams for our city. We all need to help each other.”
A big fan of the arts, Bluhm’s current favorite exhibit is the Isa Genzken retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art (220 E. Chicago), which runs through August 3.