Northwest Side Hero: Erin Folan
Here’s the latest installment of our series on everyday local heroes from Chicago’s Northwest Side. I had the pleasure of speaking with Erin earlier this summer, and included in italics words from Barb Murphy, owner of Josi’s Frozen Yogurt, on why Erin is so deserving of this title.
Erin Folan is my Northwest Side Hero for leading the way for parents like me. She has a 18-year old daughter with autism and other complications that make daily life a little more difficult than the average parent.
Erin is a relative newcomer as a resident of the Northwest Side, coming from Lakeview only 2 years ago. While she found pockets of support such as the special rec department of Welles Park, she felt overwhelmingly alone in her challenges raising a daughter with special needs.
“When Emma was younger, it was really isolating. Our reality was so different that it was hard to relate to others about their parenting challenges.”
A move to the Northwest side brought a refreshing change in atmosphere.
“It’s a lot more family-friendly around here. People sit on porches and everyone on the block knows Emma.”
Before her move here, it took many years for Erin find a support system, things that most parents take for granted: schools that accommodate learning and recreational opportunities that challenge and engage. For daughter Emma, these resources did not come easily.
Erin has been an amazing advocate for her daughter Emma from day one. When Emma attended the local grammar school, Erin advocated for a special education class that would accommodate Emma’s needs. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) ended up creating a low-incident autism cluster program specifically for Emma, but also served 12 other students. Erin models how to advocate for your child with grace and perseverance.
Erin’s advocacy work started at the very beginning, when she was looking at preschools for her daughter, then continued through elementary school.
“It was 2002—CPS didn’t have special needs classrooms like they do today. We had to go through due process to fight for an appropriate classroom setting.”
While waitressing and bartending evenings, Erin spent much of her days fighting for her daughter. Whether she knew it or not, she was blazing the way for systematic changes at CPS. She learned the hard way what issues to push for and which ones to let go.
“It was a full time job fighting for what she needed. I got a reputation. Arne Duncan’s office knew my voice on the phone. It’s a crazy maze—a lot of parents don’t know the rules and don’t speak the language.”
Many families find it easier to leave the city for better resources in the suburbs. Or they pay a lot of money for a private aid. After bouncing around a few different schools, Erin’s hard work paid off. Emma enrolled in a small and specialized program at Nettlehorst School and remained there 1st-8th grade.
“They built a program around her.”
But Erin didn’t stop with school. She got involved in Special Olympics at the city and state level, where Emma has flourished and gained more than just athletic opportunities. Even though she suffers from anxiety and seizures, Emma was asked to be a Global Messenger for Special Olympics, speaking in front of large groups on what the program means to her.
“Emma went to a training on how to give speeches, handle events, and network. She can be very anxious but once she gets going, she handles questions well and puts on a good show. It’s fun to watch.”
Erin has also found a wonderful community of special needs kids and young adults at Independence (“Indy”) Park, which offers the largest special recreation program on the north side of Chicago. Erin immediately got involved with fundraising and advocacy work, and is now president of the Independence Park Special Recreation Parent Group and is a member of the Independence Park Advisory Council (IPAC). Erin’s arrival came at a perfect time; IPAC was raising funds for a new playground and Erin was there to ensure that the park was accessible for Indy’s large special needs community.
“I gave a voice to those in our program and a different perspective that the other members did not have.”
IPAC raised over $100,000 and just this year opened a playground now accessible to anyone with disabilities, including wheelchair friendly surfaces and equipment.
“It’s one level and has a zipline chair, merry-go-round-and accessible swings.”
Fundraisers continue all through the year. The recent Annual Beerfest raised enough money to purchase new Special Olympics Winter gear for over 70 athletes.
Erin is a breath of fresh air to talk to, and she is an amazing mother, advocate and friend! She is the last person to judge you and has a sincere heart, wanting just to make things easier for her child and others.
After years of fighting, Erin can enjoy the fruits of her labor.
“You couldn’t pull me out of here now—Emma is staying at Indy forever.”
Day at the Races at Hawthorne Race Track
$45 includes buffet