Thursday, October 18, 2012

Nilan Chosen for Top National Honor

[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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Monday, October 15, 2012

Vazquez, NIU Professor, To Be Honored for Documentaries on Homeless Kids

Laura Vazquez (r) and Diane Nilan spent countless hours
in the NIU Avid Film Lab. (Photo courtesy NIU)
[Albuquerque, NM, Oct. 15, 2012] Laura Vazquez, Media Studies professor at Northern Illinois University, will receive the prestigious Distinguished Service and Leadership Award for her years of film work from the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth at their national conference in Albuquerque on Oct. 29.

Since 2006, Vazquez, an accomplished documentary filmmaker, has collaborated on stories of homeless women, children and youth with Diane Nilan, president of HEAR US Inc., a Naperville, IL based national nonprofit "giving voice and visibility to homeless children and youth." The 2 women, relentless social justice activists in their own fields, were connected by a friend/colleague Tom Parisi, Media Relations Specialist at NIU, a former beat reporter for the Aurora Beacon News where Nilan ran a shelter for many years.

"I’ve spent hundreds of hours sitting next to Laura at NIU’s film lab with eyes glued to the editing screens. She’s put me at ease—me, the former shelter director with no film experience—and she’s given me the opportunity to shape our video tools in a mutually respectful process," stated Nilan. "She’s encouraged my fledgling documentary making efforts, and has willingly helped in ways far beyond what I’d feel I could ask. And she’s worked hard to learn about homelessness."

Among Vazquez's accomplishments, her efforts led to the PBS airing on the edge: Family Homelessness in America, a powerful documentary featuring stories of seven women from across the country sharing their gripping accounts of homelessness. The film took top honors in the prestigious Broadcast Education Association's 2011 Festival of Media Arts competition.  

Nilan, who nominated her colleague for this award, points to the rare legislative success for homeless students, passage of the FAFSA Fix for Homeless Kids Act, sponsored by Congresswoman Judy Biggert (R-IL-13). Vazquez traveled to DC to film homeless youth lobbying their legislators to remove barriers to their attending college. Tom Parisi suggested they meet after Nilan returned from her maiden backroads voyage filming homeless kids in 2006. Vazquez and her students took Nilan's footage and compiled it into an acclaimed heart-breaker, My Own Four Walls

Anti-poverty activist and journalist Pat LaMarche offered an observation about the impact of Vazquez's work, "Laura’s body of work gives the average American a chance to witness the lives of folks without having to leave the comfort of their homes, churches or civic organizations." Her films are available through HEAR US,

"The biggest obstacle to ending homelessness in this country," Nilan stated, "is ignorance. Laura's incalculable contributions to eradicating ignorance and creating compassion have done more than any of us will ever know." 

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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Gas Prize Opens New Doors for Homelessness Awareness

[Naperville, IL, Sept. 12, 2012] Last December, outside the Naperville Citgo station on Hillside and Washington, HEAR US president Diane Nilan gassed up her motor home and sped to a Congressional hearing on child homelessness organized by Congresswoman Judy Biggert in Washington.

Nilan's gas was sort of on the house. Her one-woman nonprofit organization, with its small board, pulled off the improbable victory in Citgo's Fueling Good contest, winning $5,000 in gas cards, among a dozen winners out of over 700 agencies nationwide. On 9/20 she heads to Houston, Citgo's national headquarters, to personally thank them, sharing her videos and message about invisible homeless families and youth with Citgo employees.

This is Nilan's 8th year of backroads cross-country travel, "giving voice and visibility to homeless children and youth." Her 150,000 mostly backroads miles have given her opportunity to film documentaries and conduct presentations to a variety of audiences from Congress to California. The film she produced, on the edge: Family Homelessness in America,  aired on PBS. My Own Four Walls, her first film, continues to inspire educators, agency staff and the public about invisible homeless kids.

In December's race to DC, she stopped and picked up an 11-year-old boy, Rumi, and his mother at the Safe Harbour shelter in Carlisle, PA. This articulate child testified to Mrs. Biggert's committee, earning 2 appearances on CNN with Nilan. He shared the heartache he and his mother experienced as they've tumbled from one place to another following an outburst of violence from his father.

Citgo is promoting their Fall 2012 Fueling Good contest. On their website is a 90-second promo video featuring HEAR US. "This company has grasped the somewhat illusive concept of ripple effect," observes Nilan. "They've connected the dots between supporting the work of a nonprofit organization like HEAR US, which rarely gets grant funding, and the work that we do on awareness-raising."

Validated, she'll use the remaining gas cards to continue her mission of making sure homeless kids are not forgotten. Funding her unconventional effort continues to be a challenge. To donate on the secure HEAR US website,
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Thursday, April 26, 2012

New Film Highlights Needs of Desperate Littlest Nomads

[April 26, 2012, Naperville, IL] Crying in the corner of a church hall, the baby makes known her need for clean diapers and a bottle. Meeting that demand depends on the beleaguered parent’s budgetary struggles and the shelter’s fluctuating supply.

Hunger and hygiene are only two unmet needs facing hundreds of “littlest nomads,” homeless babies and toddlers, in affluent DuPage County. With infancy the most critical stage of human development, homelessness can ravage the future of these vulnerable babies.  This detrimental but preventable experience can be alleviated with greater awareness.

HEAR US Inc., a Naperville-based nonprofit giving voice and visibility to homeless children, will shed light on this invisible issue at a national premiere screening of their new film, Littlest Nomads, on Thursday, May 10th, 7 p.m., at Meiley Swallow Hall, 31 S. Ellsworth St., North Central College in Naperville, as part of Film Central, NCC Professor Richard Guzman’s effort to highlight locally produced, socially significant media. 

The event is open to the public, students $3, public $5. All proceeds go to HEAR US. Donations of diapers, wipes, formula and baby food will be accepted and distributed to DuPage programs serving families with homeless babies. (PDF flier of the event)

Littlest Nomads, filmed and produced by HEAR US president Diane Nilan, with technical support from Dr. Laura Vazquez of Northern Illinois University, is narrated by Roseanne Tellez, WBBM-TV newscaster. Sarah Benjamin, a national homeless infant-family expert, collaborated on this project. This short film highlights both the plight of Littlest Nomads and offers solutions to ease their developmental trauma. 
Littlest Nomads will be available (mid-May) on the HEAR US film collection My Own Four Walls  (Order DVD, $40 +s/h), Nilan’s acclaimed first documentary featuring homeless children and youth sharing their views of homelessness.  Littlest Nomads is appropriate for educators, child care professionals, shelter volunteers and persons interested in learning more about homelessness.
For more information, 630/225-5012, or

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Monday, April 2, 2012

Stereotype-Buster Campaign: Final Push To Get “on the edge” Documentary On PBS Mother’s Day

[Naperville, IL, April 2, 2012] Women. Kids. Not stereotypical images of homeless persons, but a new release of a powerful documentary, on the edge: Family Homelessness in America, says otherwise. And if the film’s creators have their way, their award-winning creation will hit PBS affiliates’ airwaves, crumbling stereotypes about this growing national crisis on Mother’s Day.

“Until this nation recognizes this tragic, avoidable catastrophe has shattered countless women and kids’ lives,” asserts HEAR US Inc. president Diane Nilan and producer of the film, “we will continue to lose them to the streets, a lamentable and preventable outcome.” Nilan, national organizer of this grassroots effort,  considers this the most important campaign of her nonprofit’s history. She is counting on a strong reaction to this film to create a much-needed paradigm shift in this nation’s approach to homelessness.

Nilan teamed up with director Laura Vazquez, documentary maker and professor from Northern Illinois University, whose personal experience with homelessness as a young mom with a baby motivated her involvement. With 15 years running Chicago area shelters, 20 years of intense leadership to assure homeless kids can get into school, and 7 years traveling the nation’s backroads chronicling  homeless families and youth, Nilan’s seen stereotypes work against implementing viable solutions to homelessness.

The seven women’s compelling stories give viewers insights of homelessness as it affects women, teens and children. Thousands of viewers--from California to Congress to Columbia University and beyond--have been profoundly moved. But the most disappointing response has been HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan. “He saw it, but HUD’s policies continue to ignore this vulnerable, invisible population,” Nilan laments.

Nilan urges supporters to visit the HEAR US home page which will lead them through the simple steps to contact their PBS affiliate, which needs to happen before Friday, April 6th. The film will also be available on DVD through HEAR US for $30 (plus shipping).

The few moments to petition their PBS affiliate could cause a cumulative positive effect, finally drawing public interest to an issue that is claiming many more victims. Nothing would be a better tribute to the courageous women who shared their stories than to know their stories caused a ripple of change on Mother’s Day.   

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Sunday, March 4, 2012

Great Review for "on the edge: Family Homelessness in America"

on the edge
Documentary, 60 min.
Nomad Productions, 2010
Diane Nilan, Producer
Laura Vazquez, Director
Available from HEAR US Inc.

Booklist Online Reviews, Published Jan. 2012
After you’ve been homeless, you will do whatever is in your power to keep from being homeless again,”

remarks one of the down-but-not-quite-out subjects in this heartbreaking documentary, which puts a human face on homelessness. In candid interviews, seven women share their tales of homelessness, telling about circumstances that led to their rootless existence and their attempts to find sleeping arrangements with friends or in cheap hotels and shelters, all the while trying to get themselves back on their feet.

Experts address legal, social, and child-development issues and present staggering statistics (a single mother of two working a minimum-wage job would have to work 120 hours a week just to afford an apartment).

The film is straightforward rather than sensationalistic, making the women’s stories even more powerful. Use this in community groups and classrooms to spur discussions about this widespread problem.
— Donald Liebenson

Discussion Guide, download (pdf)

Monday, February 27, 2012

Oscars Awarded, Mothers' Day Plans Ahead

[Naperville, IL, 2/28/2012] "Better than an Oscar," proclaims Diane Nilan, producer of on the edge: Family Homelessness in America. She's referring to the announcement that their award-winning documentary featuring 7 women's stories of homelessness qualified to be shown on Mothers' Day on PBS stations nationwide.

Nilan and film director Laura Vazquez, Northern Illinois University professor in the Communication Department, see the Mothers' Day opportunity as one that will change the nation's perception of homelessness. Their hour-long film unfolds around the women's stories, reflecting circumstances similar to many invisible mothers and daughters who struggle with poverty, domestic violence, failed foster care, substance abuse, and inadequate housing. OTE has won major film festival awards and has been screened in communities across the U.S., including Congress, since its release in November 2010.

Mothers' Day represents both a symbolic holiday and a tremendous opportunity for local communities to  focus on this much-ignored and soaring issue. The challenge: to get PBS affiliates to schedule the film, which has received preliminary approval from the PBS pipeline, the National Educational Telecommunications Association. Stations respond to viewers' requests, something both women are confident will flow when word gets out.

The high level of invisibility has kept women and children out of the nation's conscience and thereby inadequately assisted by federal housing resources, according to Nilan, a former shelter director. "Congress, for the most part, does not know we have millions of women and children without homes."  For the past 7 years, she has traveled the nation's backroads, chronicling homelessness of families and youth, and she's developed a sizable following of educators, college students, and parents and youth without homes through her nonprofit, HEAR US Inc.

"We've done everything we can to get these women's stories heard and seen. All we need is people to take a few moments to connect with their local station," urges Vazquez. The HEAR US website ( has all the information and links needed.

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