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CFCI Women's Fund seeks to boost endowment

Tim Alexander
Moderator Angie Ostaszewski, ICC President Dr. Sheila Quirk Bailey, Peoria Councilwoman Denise Jackson, Lenora Fisher of the Greater Peoria EDC, Eileen Leunig of Big Picture Peoria and the Rev. Linda Butler are pictured at the Illinois Central College Center for the Performing Arts. The women were part of a local leadership panel who gathered to raise awareness for the Community Foundation of Central Illinois' Women's Fund.

A Women’s Fund Leadership Panel held on Monday, April 4 at the Illinois Central College (ICC) Performing Arts Theater helped reignite the Community Foundation of Central Illinois’ (CFCI) goal of raising a $1 million endowment to provide grants to organizations whose missions help empower women and girls.

The event brought together stakeholders and leaders from the Peoria area who are focused on promoting the CFCI Women’s Fund, which has reached a balance of over $750,000 while providing over $444,000 to local organizations through 139 grants, to date. The panelists included Dr. Sheila Quirk-Bailey, ICC president, Denise Jackson, Peoria First District councilwoman, Lenora Fisher, director of business attraction for the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council (GPEDC), Eileen Leunig, co-founder of the Big Picture Initiative and the Reverend Linda Butler, pastor of First Congregational Church of Lacon and chaplain for Unity Point Health Care and the Peoria Police Department.

The panel was moderated by Angie Ostaszewski, an Ameren Illinois energy efficiency consultant who has attracted over 120 people to Peoria over the past two years through her Angie’s Listings page on TikTok.

“The CFCI is kind of like a savings account for the community,” said Michelle Nielsen Ottt, chair of the CFCI Women’s Fund advisory board, who introduced the panel. “The Women’s Fund is usually made up of individual donations, so we don’t have a lot of corporate donors. Our original goal was to find 1,000 women to donate $1,000 to equal a $1 million donation, so that women could see themselves as philanthropists and see the change they can make within the community. Our (method) has slightly changed, but we still have the $1 million goal.”

The theme for the panel was inspired by the 2022 Peoria Reads book This is Where You Belong-- Finding Home Where You Are by Melody Warrick. The panelists were presented with a number of questions about why central Illinois is a great place to live and how they might best promote positive change within their communities.

“It’s interesting that sometimes people who are from here are not as excited about Peoria as people who move here or move back here,” observed Quirk-Bailey, who came back to central Illinois in 2016 to lead ICC. “I’m thinking, you’re kidding! There’s the baseball team, the hockey team, Grandview Drive…I could go on and on. I went to Bradley and I worked for the Chamber as an intern, so I was excited to come back. I sometimes enjoy the role of trying to convince a native why they made a good choice to stay here.”

Jackson, a southside Peoria native, lived in upstate New York for several years before returning to Peoria in 1999 to work for a local television station as a reporter. She said her experience living out of state gave her a new perspective and appreciation for her hometown.

“I was glad to come back (to Peoria),” said Jackson, who had considered another out-of-state move a few years ago following the passing of her mother. Instead, she stayed and ran for public office.

“I decided I wanted to stay and be part of the change, a part of the solution, and I am very excited about this opportunity as a council representative. I feel very honored to represent the first district, and I’m here now because this is where I belong,” she said.

Fisher, who joined the GPEDC in June of 2019, said central Illinois offers a reliable logistical base for many professions and pursuits. “It allows me the freedom and the resources to do what I want to do, and the flexibility to live the life I want to live,” said Fisher, who previously served as community development director for the Morton Chamber of Commerce and EDC. “I chose to live here, and I don’t regret it. I have found the Peoria area to be amazingly welcoming.”

Leunig, who returned to Peoria from the “Golden State” of California with her husband, Doug, to become leaders of the River City’s arts scene, said the idea of a “geographical cure” for hometown disaffection is romanticized, at best.

“I moved away in the 1980s when the economy in Peoria was not great. We felt there were better job opportunities elsewhere, but I also felt some discontent living here. I thought that moving would make that all better.

“First we went to Minnesota, and that was exciting. But after a few years I realized I’d brought with me the one thing I wanted to leave behind: my dissatisfaction. I stayed in Minnesota for 15 years before moving to California. But it never felt ‘right’ to be there,” Leunig recalled. “(Peoria) is home. It took me many years to realize that what was lacking was me-- it’s your attitude that makes the difference, the attitude that you bring to the table.”

Rev. Butler, who like Jackson was raised on Peoria’s southside, admitted there are times when she has found it difficult to continue her lifelong love affair with her hometown due to issues that have affected the city’s Afro-American community.

“I grew up during the civil rights movement and those challenges followed me into my adult life,” she said. “I was always aware that for African Americans to have employment gains that were beyond blue collar jobs, we needed others to come in from outside the community to provide those opportunities and fortify improvements in our black community. When I think about the NAACP and the Tri-County Peoria Urban League and the George Washington Carver Community Center, it’s because of those organizations and people that I chose to love Peoria and to stay here. When those people broke glass ceilings here in Peoria, I was encouraged. Their aspirations for the community influenced my hopes and dreams, and I was on a mission.”

Jackson urged the 100 or so women in attendance to search inside themselves to identify how they can best serve themselves and their communities.

“You have more power than you realize. All you have to do is get involved,” said Jackson, who volunteered with the Southside Community United for Change to help push through the first phase of the redevelopment of Western Avenue in Peoria prior to her election to the Peoria City Council in April 2021. “The challenge for us regular folks is to make our voices heard, and hold people accountable.”

Butler said community activists should be willing to be both leaders and followers, depending on the situation and circumstances. “We should seek to build integrity in our community service and address the issues that matter,” she said.

“Every individual has strengths and talents. Share them-- reach out into the community and extend a hand. Women have always been good at that,” added Leunig, with a grin.

The CFCI Women’s Fund will hold its annual Leader Luncheon Awards on May 10, 2022 at the Par A Dice Hotel from noon to 1:30 pm. The Women’s Fund’s signature event includes awards

and scholarships in seven categories including business, education, community service, arts and emerging leaders.

Past recipients of CFCI Women’s Fund grants include Girl Scouts of Central Illinois, Hult Center for Healthy Living, Girls on the Run of Central Illinois, the Sun Foundation and many others.

To register for seating at the May 10 Leader Luncheon Awards or learn about how to donate to the CFCI Women’s Fund, visit www.communityfoundationci.org.

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Tim Alexander is a correspondent for WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.