Thursday, June 24, 2010
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.
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.