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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