Evanston-based Youth & Opportunity United launched the public phase of its $15 million fundraising campaign Saturday at a gathering of its families and community leaders.

Campaign goals include constructing a new headquarters, expanding the group’s programs and ensuring its long-term sustainability.

The launch event was held at the city’s Gibbs-Morrison Cultural Center at 1823 Church St., a block east of the site of Y.O.U.’s planned new headquarters at 1911 Church St.

Community leaders including Mayor Tisdahl, former Mayor Morton and Evanston’s two school superintendents at the launch event.

Activities for kids at a “World of Opportunity” family day were held across the street in an Evanston Township High School gymnasium where youngsters could get a virtual tour of the planned headquarters building and a sample art, science and other enrichment activities Y.O.U. provides. More than 300 people turned out for the launch events.

Y.O.U. Executive Director Seth Green says the non-profit has already raised over 85 percent of the campaign’s goal during two years of private fundraising efforts.

Y.O.U.’s current headquarters, in a 2011 image from Google Maps.

Y.O.U., which was founded in Evanston in 1971 as Youth Organizations Umbrella, now operates from a storefront office across from Nichols School at 1027 Sherman Ave.

It has grown since 2011 from serving 450 youths to 1,500 today and, Green says, helps to close the “opportunity gap” that makes it more difficult for children from lower income families to realize their potential. About two thirds of the youngsters served are in Evanston, with the rest in Skokie.

More than 4,000 Evanston youngsters qualify for free or reduced price school lunches, Green says, and Y.O.U. now at best reaches only about half of the youths it potentially could serve.

He says a goal of the public campaign is to involve more than 2,500 people in the community to help fund the new building that will have a maker lab, demonstration kitchen, performance space, indoor garden and private clinical counseling rooms as well as offices for the organization’s staff.

The group now conducts many of its programs in the after-school hours at local schools, and that model will continue after the new headquarters opens, Green says, but the new building will have facilities that aren’t available at many of the schools.

The campaign has already received contributions of $1 million or more from the Finnegan Family Foundation, the Lewis-Sebring Family Foundation, Col. Jennifer N. Pritzker, and an anonymous donor. In addition, members of Y.O.U.’s board of directors have contributed more than $2.65 million toward the goal.

“We’re inviting everyone in the community to participate,” Green said. “For some that may be a financial investment; for others, that may be volunteering or lending expertise. Every act of learning, volunteering, and investing moves us closer to our goal.”

Green says the group hopes to complete the fundraising campaign by next June 30.

To spark early excitement, local community leaders Lisa Altenbernd and Steve Hagerty and Romano Wealth Management joined forces and have committed to matching 3 to 1 donations made before Dec. 31 up to $25,000. More information about the campaign is available online.

Sixth grader and Y.O.U. program participant Michelle Herrarte said at the launch event, “I love Y.O.U. because the staff can always tell when something is wrong and they always try to cheer me up.”

“And it’s at Y.O.U. that I get to try new groups like ‘The Chew’ cooking group,” she added. “Now I get to cook for my mom instead of her always cooking for me, and I teach her healthy new recipes.”

Herrarte’s mother, Sandra, is also active in Y.O.U. and has participated in its parental leadership workshops. “Y.O.U. has exposed me to a community base that has supported my growth and my pursuit of new opportunities,” Sandra said. “I’ve seen how Y.O.U. has changed my family’s life and it’s exciting that this campaign will help more families get access to these amazing programs.”

Green says 92 percent of Y.O.U. participants surveyed during the last school year say they seek to do well in school and that teachers report 88 percent of them are improving or maintaining their academic performance.

The student surveys also show 85 percent feel it’s important to help other people and 75 percent actively seek to avoid dangerous and unhealthy choices. Eighty-two percent report feeling “good about myself” and 72 percent say they’ve gained confidence through participation in Y.O.U.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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