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Last Sunday, Schweitzer Fellows prepared a meal for StreetWise vendors.

Last Sunday, Schweitzer Fellows prepared a meal for approximately 60 StreetWise vendors.

As we mentioned in Tuesday’s FFL Conference recap, last weekend included the first-ever FFL Conference Service Day, organized by the 2009-10 class of Chicago Area Schweitzer Fellows.

As part of the Service Day, a group of Schweitzer Fellows and Fellows for Life had the chance to spend their morning at StreetWise, an incredible Chicago nonprofit organization whose mission is helping people achieve self-sufficiency through gainful employment.

Fellows worked with StreetWise Executive Director Bruce Crane (second from left) to repair and replace the organization's bathroom countertops.

Fellows worked with StreetWise Executive Director Bruce Crane (second from left) to repair and replace the organization's bathroom countertops.

StreetWise Executive Director Bruce Crane — who came out of retirement to take the organization’s reins, and is pictured above — gave the Fellows an inside look at the organization’s approach to empowering Chicago’s most vulnerable populations out of poverty.

Each week, StreetWise (a member of the North American Street Newspaper Organization) publishes a full-color, sixteen-page magazine (tagline: Your City From the Streets) — which vendors purchase from StreetWise for 75 cents, and then sell to the public for $2. These vendors are Chicago’s poor, homeless, and disenfranchised; Crane describes them as “the people everyone else turns away.”

At any given time, StreetWise has about 180 vendors — the majority of whom view selling the magazine as their job. For many, it’s their first. But supported by the organization’s network of mentors and empowered by their new interactions with the community, many vendors begin to take serious steps towards self-sufficiency — taking advantage of the literacy, computer literacy, financial training, housing support, and job training programs that StreetWise provides.

Fellows collected and organized hundreds of travel-size toiletries for StreetWise's vendors.

Fellows collected and organized hundreds of travel-size toiletries for StreetWise's vendors.

Crane didn’t give the Fellows an airbrushed picture of StreetWise; he was very clear in telling us that not every StreetWise story is a success story. That wasn’t a surprise to the Fellows, who understand that even the most well-organized, well-executed, and systematic community work will encounter “boulders.”

But the stories that are successes speak for themselves.

One vendor used her magazine sales earnings to lease an apartment — it was the first time in 18 years that she had her own housing. Bringing her story full-circle, she now volunteers at the StreetWise office, and teaches vendors how to use computers and e-mail.

Another vendor — featured in a documentary about StreetWise — now works part-time at the organization, and is earning her master’s degree.

We were happy and humbled to play a part, however small, in helping out the organization that makes these stories of transformation possible.

Click here to view a Flickr photo album of our time at StreetWise. Thanks to StreetWise for hosting us, and to Chicago Program Director (and photographer extraordinaire) Ray Wang for shooting and sharing!