[October 18, 2012, Naperville, IL, by Kathy Millen] The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth will award Diane Nilan its prestigious Sandra Neese Lifetime Achievement Award.
Nilan is founder and president of HEAR US, a national non-profit organization based in Naperville, Il that gives voice and visibility to homeless children and youth and has played a pivotal role in landmark legislation protecting the educational rights of homeless children.
For the last seven years Nilan has traveled more than 150,000 miles across the United States in her motor home chronicling the plight of homeless children and their families. The result includes two award-winning documentaries: My Own Four Walls and on the edge: Family Homelessness in America, made in partnership with Laura Vazquez, a media professor at Northern Illinois University.
Vazquez, will be the recipient of NAEHCY's Distinguished Service and Leadership Award. Both women will be among those honored at an awards presentation Oct. 29 at the Albuquerque Convention Center in Albuquerque, N.M.
Nilan, who has worked on behalf of homeless people for more than 25 years, said the award reflects the strong support she has received during that time.
"My life has been immeasurably enriched by my years of working with homeless families and youth," she said. "Little did I know what I was getting into. In my wildest dreams, seven years ago when I whittled down my stuff to fit into Tillie the Turtle, my motor home, I had no idea of how this journey would unfold. I've met countless quiet champions, going far beyond what is reasonable to help families and kids survive. I've met scads of incredibly courageous kids willing to risk bullying and worse to speak out about not having a home. This award goes to them."
Nilan's accomplishments include launching a homeless shelter in Joliet, Il and later directing the shelter that is part of Hesed House/PADS Ministries in Aurora, IL. For 13 years, she expanded shelter programs and supervised more than 5,000 volunteers who served more than 150 adults and children each night.
Nilan has addressed the U.S. Congress on homeless issues. One of her biggest supporters is Illinois Congresswoman Judy Biggert (R-13). In a letter to the NAEHCY board of directors, Biggert praised Nilan for spearheading the Illinois Education for Homeless Children act, also known as Charlie's Bill, and, on the federal level, the McKinney-Vento education provisions signed into law in 2001 as part of No Child Left Behind.
"Diane's work in and out of the field has touched lives across the country," Biggert said. "She has been a truly remarkable source of expertise and inspiration for policy-makers who have sought to improve the educational opportunities available to homeless children."
Nilan is the author of Crossing the Line: Taking Steps to End Homelessness. She also created and directed Project REACH in Illinois, the lead McKinney-Vento liaison for 305 school districts in eight counties surrounding Chicago. She has successfully stood up for the rights of homeless children, including a confrontation with a powerful law firm that had been blocking homeless enrollments in residency hearings. She has collaborated with journalists to help uncover rights violations which resulted in a prison sentence for one school superintendent.
Nilan's latest film is Littlest Nomads which focuses on the unmet needs of homeless babies and toddlers. The film was made in partnership with Vazquez and Sarah Benjamin, a NAEHCY-recognized advocate for young children.
Nilan said her goal is to continue working to generate compassion and reduce causes of homelessness among children and families.
"We've seemed to have lost our way in this country," she said. "I've witnessed decades of deterioration of support we used to provide for families. Shockingly to most, way over 1.6 million kids are homeless in our great nation. We should be ashamed to the point of demanding that our elected officials and our communities prioritize the well-being of our vulnerable young people."
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