Urban Initiatives was founded in Cabrini Green in 2003 by Chicago natives Jim Dower and Dan Isherwood. As Chicago Public School teachers and suburban soccer coaches, they started the organization as a response to the lack of extracurricular programs for children at Chicago’s Byrd Academy.
Urban Initiatives offers sports-based youth development programs that empower the city’s underserved children to adopt healthy lifestyles, build strong character and succeed at school. Structured and incentive-based, the programs lay the foundation for children to learn life accountability, especially as it concerns academics, nutrition, physical fitness and personal conduct.
Urban Initiatives currently works in 46 Chicago Public Schools. Ninety-six percent of its participants are minorities. Ninety-two percent come from low-income families.
Skender Foundation Builders’ Board member Brian Skender met Dower when Skender was enrolled in a master’s-level class at Loyola University Chicago’s Quinlan School of Business. Urban Initiatives was part of a case study being presented to the class at the time.
The case study and Urban Initiatives made an impression on Skender. He called Dower six months later and invited him to present to the Builders’ Board as a potential partner in pursuing positive, sustainable change in Chicago.
“I was blown away by Jim’s personality and the spirit of the organization when I became aware of them during that class,” Skender said. “Their character matched Skender Foundation’s. You could sense the depth of their care. They have an entrepreneurial spirit full of big goals and dreams for the community, and that drew us even closer to them.”
Skender Foundation selected Urban Initiatives to be its featured organization during its Harvesting Hope event in October 2014. Held at Chicago’s Rockit Bar & Grill on Hubbard Street, the event raised $25,000 for Urban Initiatives’ programs.
One such program is Work for Play, the organization’s flagship initiative. Work to Play provides children in Grades K–4 with the chance to belong to a soccer team, regardless of skill level. Through participation, children learn important lessons about health, character and teamwork from their coach. Team membership includes two practices and one game per week during the school year. To play in each game, the children must meet academic and behavioral standards as determined each week by their teachers.
According to Urban Initiatives statistics, Work to Play children are 20% more likely to meet or exceed state standards on standardized tests than their classmates. In addition, 96% of them engage in 60 minutes of play five days per week.
“The great thing about sport is that it joins families, communities and outside supporters,” Dower said. “It creates a great forum for inspiring people and strengthening bonds among them. Sport also develops children’s sense of health and wellness, their socio-emotional learning and their confidence to achieve other things. Sport and play have the built-in capacity to bring the best out of people and connect all sides of Chicago.”
Dower likewise recognizes the pivotal role Skender Foundation plays in making a greater city.
“Skender Foundation has had a huge impact on our ability to work with Chicago’s children,” he said. “They have a young, fun, caring, energized vibe about them. It’s a vitality and a spirit of giving you can see and feel.
“Their actions speak of their desire to be a building block in the community, and it goes well beyond contributing money. The best part is, seeing the results of their personal investment in organizations like ours only fuels them to want to do more. That is what makes them special.”