invisible homeless kids

Hard to imagine that in this country way over 3 MILLION kids are without homes. H-O-M-E-L-E-S-S Kids. I don't get it. Are we willing to discard these kids? Not me. So this blog will relentlessly focus on this issue, hoping to light a spark to fuel a compassion epidemic. Chime in, argue, but do something....

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Good-bye Mary Lou! We'll Miss You!

Homeless kids across the nation never met Mary Lou Cowlishaw. But they'd love her.

This school-marmish unpretentious woman served as an Illinois State Legislator from Naperville for 20 years. She died yesterday, 6/23/10, after a battle with cancer.

Over 16 years ago Mary Lou led the charge to make sure homeless kids could get an education, bucking the trend to ignore this issue. As a Republican lawmaker in an affluent community where the local district threw up a significant barrier for homeless kids, she didn't need to engage in this controversy, but she did.

A small group of us, including photojournalist Pat Van Doren  who took Charlie's picture (right), developed the concept and campaign behind "Charlie's Bill," which ended up becoming the much-acclaimed IL Education for Homeless Children Act. Mary Lou grabbed the reins and was the relentless sponsor, successfully navigating the bill with a bipartisan team of lead sponsors through a pathetically dysfunctional legislative session back in Spring of 1994.

Mary Lou didn't stop there. I'd get an occasional phone call from her, with her distinctively deep voice commanding my attention. She'd float a story by me, and I'd find myself listening despite the chaos wafting around me, a constant reality of my homeless shelter director duties. At the end of the story she'd leave me with a thought or a challenge.

In the Summer of 1998, my friend called and suggested that newly-elected Congresswoman Judy Biggert (IL, 13-R) should tour Hesed House, where the homeless shelter I directed was located. MLC arranged for me to pick up Mrs. Biggert at Mary Lou's office. After the tour, the flabbergasted legislator asked what she could do. I asked her to include provisions from Charlie's Bill into the eventually to-be-reauthorized McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children Act. She did. It's profound. And Mary Lou never got the credit due for this accomplishment.

Another such conversation in 2004, Mary Lou proposed that unaccompanied homeless youth who wanted to go to college needed help removing the FAFSA barriers that kept them from college. She suggested  Congresswoman Judy Biggert as the go-to legislator in DC. I suppose Judy Biggert knew I was coming, and she readily agreed to pick up the mantle, again. And since then she's more than proven her devotion to this issue. Thanks to Mary Lou.

In the past 5 years of my latest venture, HEAR US Inc., my nonprofit national effort to raise awareness about homeless kids, I would make time (not often enough) to pop in on Mary Lou. I was shocked to see her almost hairless after a round of cancer treatment. I didn't know she wrestled with that brutal disease. The last time, this past Spring, her hair was back but her strength wasn't. Her beloved, Wayne, and I sat and the three of us chatted. She encouraged my uphill efforts with her characteristic plainspeak style.

Mary Lou Cowlishaw will be fondly remembered by many people for many reasons. My memories of this amazing woman include a deep sense of gratitude on behalf of millions of homeless kids whose access to education can be directly attributed to my friend and mentor. With soaring homelessness among families and youth we need her now more than ever.

Seems to me it's time to get back to the basics--legislators who believe that government exists to protect and assist the vulnerable. Mary Lou proved it was possible.


Maria Wilson said...

Thank you, Diane, for singing the praises of this tireless supporter of those who are unable to make a meaningful life for their families and themselves on their own. Mary Lou Cowlishaw was a symbol of what we should all be doing to recapture what made America great. She was willing to take the challenge in a very public way through the political process, but let her be our role model, even if it is on a small scale. She WILL BE remembered!

Ciara Roots said...

Hey Diane!

Thanks for the story of Mary Lou, a real pioneer in the world of homeless education. Mary Lou's life must be an inspiration to us all--especially to those of us who doubt the existence of caring legislators. May Mary Lou's spirit live on in everyone who advocates on behalf of kids and families in homeless situations!

Anonymous said...

Diane: What an amazing woman of strength Mary Lou was and every day you are 'on the road' is a tribute to her launching this endless battle against homelessness. Perhaps, when talking about young adults going to College: it occurred to me that a scholarship program could be set up at a College in MaryLou's name with the criteria being...a homesless background. To encourage a young person to post-secondary education! I know how it works in Canada, not so sure about USA; but maybe someone there could take up that cross? What a tribute to an amazing lady...oh and so are you, Diane!

Diane Nilan said...

Funny you should mention the scholarships. Mary Lou had begun to work on this at North Central College in Naperville about 6-7 years ago. Don't think it happened yet...but someone could see to it!