Daily Whale: Q+A with Glenn Wilke, Executive Director for Midtown Educational Foundation

By: Tom Butala 

Chicago — As executive director of the Midtown Educational Foundation, Glenn Wilke sees outstanding success among the young people he serves.
For the last 14 years at the 49-year-old organization, 100 percent of students in MEF's College Orientation Program at its Midtown Center for Boys and Metro Achievement Center for Girls have been accepted into college.
"We nurture [the students], we care for them and we work with the parents," Wilke, who began volunteering with the foundation in 1976 and became executive director in 2004, explained. "It works."

The College Orientation Program, which, like all of MEF's programs serves low-income, "academically-average" students, Wilke said, provides high school students with year-round, one-on-one tutoring, character development, arts, fitness and athletics programs.
In addition to the College Orientation Program, MEF offers the Walgreens One-on-One tutoring program for fourth through sixth graders, the Midtown and Metro achievement programs for seventh and eighth graders and Midtown and Metro parent programs.

Midtown Educational Foundation last year served 1,010 students between its Midtown Center for Boys, located at 1819 N. Wood St. in Bucktown and its Metro Achievement Center for Girls, located at 310 S. Peoria St. on the Near West Side.

Next month, on June 16, MEF will host its 21st Golf for the Kids event at the Schaumburg Golf Club. The event is crucial for MEF, as the organization receives no government grants, and a good portion of its funding last year - 30 percent - came from such events.

Most of the foundation's funding last year - 31 percent - came from corporate donations, while the remainder was sourced to MEF investments, individual contributions and its nominal program fees.

Daily Whale sat down with Wilke - who previously spent 20 years with Naperville-based food product maker ConAgra Foods, most recently as director of marketing and business management - to discuss his work at the foundation. An edited transcript of that conversation is below.

DW: What motivated your transition into the nonprofit world?

 I needed a change [professionally]. I wanted to have a change and I knew of Midtown Educational Foundation and the great work it does. I had been involved throughout my career so I decided it made a lot of sense.

DW: Are there similarities you've drawn between the corporate and nonprofit worlds?

They're exactly the same. The not-for-profit world requires the same skills, the only difference is you don't get paid the same amount of money. When you run something like the Midtown Educational Foundation, you're handling all of the things you handle in a major company. As a matter of fact, I work as hard now, or harder, as I ever have in my life.

DW: Why, in your opinion, are extracurricular activities so crucial to young people's success?

 A lot of the [students] that we serve don't have both parents at home, for whatever reason, and that impacts them greatly. So we add that extra care and attention. ... A lot of these kids who are in the middle out there in the city of Chicago ... don't have that, so we fulfill a need.

DW: How does a student typically become involved with MEF?

 There's tremendous word of mouth from the schools. We've been doing this for so long and they know the impact that we provide.

DW: Tell me about MEF's special summer program.

 It's a six-week, full-day program. [from]10 [a.m.] until 3 [p.m.]. There we have a character class; we have science; we have English; we have math.

One of the things that we do for the high school students is we have what we call apprenticeships. ... We have a journalism apprenticeship, an entrepreneur or business apprenticeship, an architecture apprenticeship, a legal apprenticeship and now an engineering apprenticeship. [Employers] actually pay the young people to be part of that and then they really learn that particular area of business or whatever it happens to be.

In the summer, both programs, half the program is sports too. We teach character in sports - it's how to be a good teammate and work together with the others. ... We get much more time with the students in the summer, therefore we get to do a lot more.

DW: Why do you believe summer is such a crucial time that these kids be staying active?

 A lot of our kids come from Pilsen; Little Village. They come from the West Side - Lawndale. There's so many murders in those neighborhoods. They can't get out; the obesity rates are very high because they're afraid of their neighborhoods. Therefore, in the summer, it's great to have the kids we serve come to a very safe location. Both of our centers are very safe. It brings them out of their neighborhoods and they use their time well.

And they don't lose it. Because what happens with a lot of kids, if they're just sitting at home all summer, they lose that edge they've gotten in terms of studying. And here we make them read and study and take tests and use their time well so that they can move forward.

DW: What do you believe the city could do to improve the livelihood of nonprofits like MEF?

Anything they could do to stop the bureaucracy and the fees, different things that are coming at us, because it's getting more and more complicated to run [the MEF]. And you have small staffs of good people who don't get paid as much money as they deserve, and they work very hard, not just in ours but in others.

We are really impacting the city of Chicago. The kids who come out of our program are the kind of kids that we want for our city. They know who they are, they know what virtue is, what character is, they're hard workers. Anything the city can do to make it easier for us to run these programs would benefit the city.

DW: Are you a Chicago resident?

I was born in Chicago. I grew up in Park Ridge, lived in the city for 20-25 years and I live in Park Ridge again. I'm born and bred in Chicago.

DW: What do you enjoy most about living in Chicagoland?

It's a vibrant place, there're issues though, to tell you the truth...There're issues with the cost, what you have to pay, the taxes and all that, which are causing me trouble right now in running a not-for-profit. That's kind of a negative, but that's true. I love Chicago and I wish we could turn around the state and the city, but that's going to take a lot of will power and fortitude on many people's parts.

DW: What are some of your hobbies and interests outside of work?

I'm a business guy, I read all the business magazines. I need to know that because I deal with a lot of people at high levels and if I walk into a meeting and I don't know what's going on, that doesn't spell success.

So I read Fortune, and Forbes, and the Wall Street [Journal] and the [Chicago] Tribune business section - anything I can get my hands on to really understand and know what's going on around me.

I play tennis; I run; I bike; I read quite a bit, and listen to books on tape. I just listened to a book on tape on Ulysses S. Grant called "Grant," about his generalship. I just read the book on Steve Jobs and Apple after his death.

But this kind of a job, it's like a 24/7-job so it's pretty hard. You have to balance it out.


About the Daily Whale: The Daily Whale is an online publication that's circulated to Chicago business, government and civic leaders. Once a week it features a profile with a nonprofit executive.