Thursday, May 1, 2014

Peter Yarrow Headlines 20 Year Celebration of Homeless Children's Education Rights

[May 1, 2014, Naperville, IL] Michael’s the engineer. Shantrice is the doctor. Justin’s a chef. Twenty years ago they, along with their mother Tyeast Boatwright, were homeless. On May 8 at Copley Theater in Aurora, just up the road from Hesed House, the former incinerator turned center for ministry where they lived, a celebration will take place.

Back in August 1993, Ms. Boatwright’s three children were denied their right to stay in Indian Prairie District 204 schools they attended before becoming homeless. That conflict, settled against the family in court, led to 1994 passage of the Illinois Education for Homeless Children Act, the first state legislation in the nation to clarify the civil rights of homeless students. During months of court appearances and legislative hearings, Ms. Boatwright spoke up for her children, keeping them out of the massive media coverage.

Diane Nilan, president and founder of the national Naperville-based nonprofit HEAR US, hoped to reconnect with this family for years as she traversed the country in her small motorhome raising awareness of homeless children and youth. On the road since 2005, the former shelter director at Hesed House has made several acclaimed documentaries used to enlighten and inspire audiences about the plight and promise of homeless families and youth. 

After failing to locate Ms. Boatwright, she turned to the HEAR US board for help, and they succeeded. In several conversations with her last month, the two got caught up on the past 20 years. Among other topics, the success of Boatwright's three children delighted Nilan. Sadly, the family will not be able to attend the May 8 event.

The Illinois law, nicknamed “Charlie’s Bill” for the bill’s poster child, 4-year-old Charles depicted in
photojournalist Pat Van Doren’s compelling photo, provided the major substance for enhancing the federal legislation, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act of 2001. Now-retired Congresswoman Judy Biggert (IL-13, R) championed the legislation in Washington. She is co-chair of the May 8 event.

Nilan hopes that families staying at Hesed House in 1993 and beyond will attend the event. The camaraderie during the court fight and subsequent legislative advocacy campaign provided an empowering undercurrent for their shelter stay. “These families benefited by the courageous action of Ms. Boatwright and her children, and by the enlightened action of the Illinois legislature,” Nilan said. She points out that millions of homeless students have also benefited by this little-heralded civil rights legislation.

HEAR US will honor The Law Project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and Professor Laura Vazquez, Northern Illinois University documentary maker, for their efforts on behalf of homeless children/youth educational rights.

The event begins at 6:30 and is open to the public. Suggested donation is $10 to benefit HEAR US. Area chefs Francois and Betsy Sanchez, longtime supporters of Nilan’s efforts, are providing substantial hors d oeuvres for the event. A cash bar will be available. HEAR US books and videos will be available for purchase.  More information available at

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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Forget Me Not: Reminder To Illinois Legislators Not to Forget Homeless Children

Good News: 
Strong Homeless Students’ Educational Rights.
Bad News: 
Record Number of Homeless Students and Scant Resources.

The official parchment scroll proclaims May 2014 as Homeless Students’ Educational Rights Month, signed by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn. Advocates and supporters will gather on May 8 in Aurora to commemorate the 20th anniversary of hallmark civil rights legislation, the Illinois Education for Homeless Children Act, and urge restoration of $3 million of state funds to help homeless kids.

Twenty years ago, Illinois legislators established strong educational rights for homeless students, passing Charlie’s Bill, named for Pat Van Doren’s image of a captivating 4-year-old boy that adorned every piece of literature promoting the bill. The law removed barriers commonly experienced by homeless students and guided schools to help the students succeed. In 2001, federal legislation based on the Illinois law passed, ensuring access to school for homeless students nationwide.

Advocates will utilize momentum from this 20th anniversary commemoration to push for more resources to help homeless students. Illinois lawmakers removed $3 million to help homeless families and youth from the budget following the 2008-09 school year.  
Since then, schools have identified almost 55,000 students without homes, more than double the census in 2009.
“It doesn’t do any good to have a proclamation if we don’t have the resources to back it up,” declared Diane Nilan, founder and president of HEAR US, a Naperville-based national nonprofit advocacy organization. Nilan ran the shelter at Hesed House in Aurora and was part of the effort to pass the state and federal legislation to remove barriers for homeless students. HEAR US is the sponsor of the May 8 event featuring Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary.

The Law Project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless is spearheading the campaign to restore the $3 million. They point to the “109% increase in identified homeless students statewide since 2008-09 when $3 million in homeless education funding was last included in the state budget.” Funding will help ensure immediate enrollment of homeless students, reduce truancy, provide academic support, including transportation, and augment local services to help students and their families.

Nilan has worked with the Law Project for decades. She created the Forget Me Not campaign to restore the $3 million. HEAR US will recognize the Law Project at the May 8 event, which features a performance by Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary. They will invite the audience to contact their lawmakers and urge restoration of the funding.

The May 8 event is open to the public, with a suggested donation of $10 for the 6:30 reception and concert at Copley Theater, 8 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora. More information available at

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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Peter Yarrow to Perform At HEAR US Event for Homeless Children

Peter Yarrow greets Diane. (photo courtesy HEAR US Inc.)
[Naperville, IL, April 2, 2014] Peter Yarrow, of the legendary folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, will perform in Aurora, IL on May 8 for a civil rights gathering, the 20th Anniversary of Charlie’s Bill, the Illinois Education for Homeless Children Act.

Diane Nilan, president of HEAR US Inc., the national nonprofit sponsoring the May 8 event, describes the importance of that law, “The one sentiment emphatically echoed over the past twenty years: ‘I am so glad I (my children) can go to school.’ For homeless students, that universal experience is not to be taken for granted.”  Passage of the law was the result of a courageous mother from Aurora who fought when her three children were denied school because of homelessness.  A small group of activists 20 years ago successfully led Illinois to be first state to guarantee educational rights to homeless students. The law has been expanded on a federal level, applying to all public schools.

“How did you get Peter Yarrow to agree to come?” is a question Nilan hears often. This lifetime Peter, Paul and Mary devotee, has met Yarrow on a number of occasions. “I suspected that few beyond our circle would grasp the importance of the milestone of millions of homeless kids being able to attend school,” she observed. “So I asked and he agreed.” His presence is the spark needed to highlight the issue of soaring poverty and homelessness among families and youth.

Using the image of Charlie, a small homeless boy whose iconic image was captured by photojournalist Pat Van Doren, the group lobbied to remove common barriers experienced by homeless students. The bill passed in May 1994 and became the model for national legislation.

The latest U.S. Department of Education data illustrates the drastic increase in homelessness identified in public schools. A record 1.2 million students were identified as homeless, a 72% increase since 2007. That doesn’t include babies, toddlers, teens not attending school, or parents.

The May 8 event will be a combination songfest and inspiration for attendees. Organizers will pay tribute to those who have steadfastly upheld rights for homeless students to attend school. And they will issue the challenge to increase advocacy efforts on behalf of homeless families and youth, many of whom are not considered “homeless enough” to merit assistance, Nilan said.

The public is invited to attend the gathering which begins at 6:30 with substantial hors d’ oeuvres by noted area chefs Francois and Betsy Sanchez. Suggested donation is $10, proceeds will benefit HEAR US Inc. More information,

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Friday, March 7, 2014

Plea Issued for Supplies for Joliet-area Homeless Families, Students

[Naperville, IL, March 7] 

nilanDiane Nilan, founder of Will County’s first homeless shelter (Will County PADS), returns to Joliet early next week to be honored by her alma mater, University of St. Francis, on Wednesday evening, 7:00 at the Sue Turk Theater. Nilan has been chosen for the Sister Clare Award, given to honor “women of vision who have transformed the world in their time…who make a positive, transformative impact in the community; inspire and serve as role models for other women; and are committed to …society.

When asked how the University of St. Francis could help her nonprofit organization, Nilan suggested a collection of items for both Daybreak shelter and District 86’s homeless student program. Items needed include: diapers, deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, toothbrushes, toothpaste, hairbrushes, shower gel, razors, underwear, socks, and sweatpants. Additionally, District 86 needs school supplies and packs of kids’ underwear, kids’ socks, and gift cards. Drop-off: 1433 Essington Road, Joliet or bring to Wednesday evening’s event.

In September, before leaving on her latest trip, she visited with Courtney Suchor, Daybreak shelter director. “I was delightfully impressed with the scope of their program,” Nilan observed. “But I shudder to think of all the families they must turn away.” While in New York City at a conference in January, Diane also connected with Alice Manning-Dowd, District 86’s homeless liaison. They knew each other when Nilan was working with Chicago area districts on implementing the federal homeless education law.

“These 2 essential programs serve a hidden population in the community,” Nilan pointed out. Her work with HEAR US Inc., the organization she founded in 2005, takes her across the country chronicling the plight and promise of invisible homeless children and youth. “It takes a lot to shock me, but I’m astounded and appalled at how widespread family and youth homelessness is nationwide,” Nilan lamented.

Marilyn McGowan, an Associate with the Joliet Franciscans and HEAR US board member who’s known Diane since they were in college, nominated her. “I have been inspired by what this one person is trying to do through her work,” McGowan said. She is encouraging people to donate to a matching fund created in honor of Nilan’s Sister Clare Award that will support HEAR US’s unique and essential work. Donations up to $10,000 will be matched dollar-for-dollar up to $10,000. Information, including the article and donation link, may be found on

The Sister Clare Award will be presented at 7 pm followed by a reception. Nilan, returning from months filming and speaking across the country, looks forward to reconnecting with families and friends she knew in her 20 years living in Joliet. She’ll stay her motorhome on the USF campus Tuesday through Thursday so she can speak to students on the topic of family/youth homelessness.

Her dream for her return to Joliet? A generous community response to the collection of items for homeless families. “May the pile be as high as the piles of snow that afflict the area!”
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Friday, February 28, 2014

Sister Clare Award for Rolling Activist

[Naperville, IL, 2/28/14] Diane Nilan, selected for the University of St. Francis Sister Clare Award, is in some ways the least likely choice. The bumper sticker displayed inside her road-weary motorhome gives a clue: Well-behaved women seldom make history.  Despite the contrast, for her unconventional and unrelenting efforts as an activist for homeless families, Nilan will receive her recognition in Joliet on March 12 at USF, 7 p.m. in Sue Turk Hall.

40 years after graduating from the College of St. Francis, 23 years after leaving this city where she spent the first segment of her adult life, Nilan (bio, PDF) will roll into town following a 6-month stint of mostly solo cross-country travel where she filmed and produced a new documentary, Worn Out Welcome Mat, and addressed a variety of audiences on the issue of invisible homelessness, particularly families and youth. Nilan sold her townhome in 2005 to take to the nation’s backroads, living in Tillie, her small motorhome.

This award has generated a considerable opportunity for Nilan’s nonprofit organization, HEAR US Inc., thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor who will match every dollar, up to $10,000, raised in honor of the Sister Clare Award. Board member Marilyn McGowan, who nominated Nilan for this honor, stresses that her frugal one-woman operation makes a major impact on a national level. “Diane can quietly sit and listen to a mother’s devastating story of homelessness and convert those stories into powerful advocacy and awareness tools,” points out McGowan.

“I’ve never totally left Joliet,” Nilan admits. She’s still in contact with former students and even some people she once assisted at the Will County PADS program, the precursor to Catholic Charities’ Daybreak Shelter she started while she worked at Catholic Charities in the mid-‘80s. When notified of the USF honors and asked what people could bring to the award ceremony to help her work, Nilan demurred, offering to generate needed supplies for Daybreak and local homeless students instead. Those attending the award ceremony are asked to bring nonperishable food items for Daybreak or school supplies for Joliet District 86’s homeless students.

Nilan chuckles when she reflects on her activism, incubated during her CSF days. “We created a ruckus over the quality of food the cafeteria served,” but also focused on other weighty issues, including the Viet Nam war. She provided leadership for humanitarian causes, almost flunking out of college in the process. “I give a lot of credit to the Joliet Franciscans,” Nilan admits. “They managed to hone my leadership skills in such a way to not discourage my efforts to seek justice on behalf of the oppressed.”

After leaving Joliet in 1990, she directed the PADS shelter at Hesed House in Aurora for 13 years, simultaneously working on Charlie’s Bill, a successful venture to guarantee access to education for the state’s homeless students. The bill passed 20 years ago and served as model legislation for the nation, thanks in part to a partnership between Nilan and (Ret.) Congresswoman Judy Biggert (R-IL).

Implementing that legislation, the McKinney-Vento HomelessEducation Assistance Act of 2001, has been Nilan’s focus since it passed. She oversaw 305 Chicagoland school districts’ compliance with the law, and in 2005, when that project shifted, she took to the backroads of the U.S. to film a documentary of what students thought about their experiences of homelessness and what school meant to them to help educators and other audiences better understand the plight of millions of children and youth.

And now she’s come full circle, returning to her roots to accept this honor, but not standing still for long. She’s scheduled for a trip to New York in April.
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