Five years ago, Giovanna Dibenedetto was going through major life changes. She and her adoptive grandchildren had just transitioned into living in an apartment in Urbana’s Silverwood neighborhood, after being homeless for five months.
Dibendedetto was welcomed to the neighborhood with the statement, “Welcome to the ghetto, where no one cares.”
The population in the neighborhood is unique; ranging in races, ages, and accessibilities. What they share in common is income and systematic disadvantages. 69% of families in Silverwood are rent-burdened, with many working low-wage jobs and having to rely on public transportation to get around.
Two weeks after moving in, a murder occurred in the parking lot. It was the third homicide that occurred within close succession within the area, and it shook the whole neighborhood.
“It hit my heart,” said Dibenedetto. “It was one of the worst things that I had ever seen. It brought home to me that we have kids killing kids. We have a problem in our society, and particularly at that moment it was at my back window. It’s not okay.”
As a survivor of domestic violence, Dibenedetto felt strongly about stopping the violence going on outside her window. The next day, with a heavy heart, she turned toward her church friends for comfort and guidance. They all shared a longing to create change.
Born out of those conversations was a mission and an effort that has now touched many lives in the Silverwood neighborhood. That day, Dibenedetto, Jeremy Oberman, and Neil Weislow formed the group now known as Silver Hearts. The group began hosting potluck events, inviting all those who resided in the neighborhood to attend. Silver Hearts evolved into a peace and community-building initiative to serve residents living in apartments at Silver and Vawter streets in southeast Urbana.
Volunteers and multiple community organizations and agencies got involved as well: Urbana Rotary Club, Urbana Parks District, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts (KCPA), and United Way. A rotating cast of churches and food pantries have served as well, notably Quest Church and The Church of Christ.
Those involved hosted block parties, Halloween, Christmas, and other social events, all with the goal to enrich and build community in a neighborhood divided. KCPA provided music and entertainment at these events, and the other organizations brought additional volunteers and resources.
Before the lockdown, the groups collaborated to host their largest event yet, an ice cream social.
“There was an invisible wall,” explained Dibenedetto. “There were divisions of diversity and class, but this was pulling people together and people were finally getting to know their neighbors. It was cool, those divisions were erased, everyone was just there with their kids.”
They hope that they will be able to host community-building events like the social once again, when the threat of COVID is not imminent.
Priorities have been forced to shift due to the pandemic, and food sources became an immediate need as people lost their jobs and their benefits and struggled to feed their families. The last few months, the focus for those involved has been to provide 150 boxes of free food monthly to every apartment during this unprecedented, difficult time in history.
Silver Hearts and Urbana Rotary Club have been exchanging the task of buying, bagging, and delivering food to 150+ apartment doors on a monthly basis. The bags contain at least two full meals and nutritional snacks. A lot of hard work and dedication goes into the planning and the execution of this charitable task, and the initiative has certainly met limitations and road blocks.
Monthly operations cost around $1,000/month. Finding a place to store the food and other essential products has become an issue. There are physical limitations too, many of the volunteers are older and struggle climbing multiple flights of stairs.
Everyone involved has high hopes for the future. Dibenedetto dreams of Silver Hearts having a permanent office, a place where they could host administrative and resource services, as well as having storage for donations and goods.
Sam Smith of KCPA would like to see safer, cleaning housing for those residing in the Silverwood neighborhood and to see business owners engage with the community, improving their quality of life.
“The same issues that plague our healthcare and education and justice systems, they also plague arts and culture,” said Smith. “There are issues of access to art experiences and training, as well as equity and justice issues… People have a right to beauty.”
Tim Bartlett, Executive Director of Urbana Parks District and President of Urbana Rotary Club, wants to use his influence to introduce more life-enriching programs and recreational opportunities to the area, such as a community garden or park amenities.
“We want to keep the dialogue with the Silverwood residents and the surrounding neighbors open,” said Bartlett. “We want to get to know the residents and their needs, it is essential for sustaining an operation like this.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge that the mission is facing is a lack of funds. Dibenedetto shared that recently funds were running low and Silver Hearts could have only continued for another month or two. Anonymous donations have helped the operation stay afloat, but more help is needed.
“The hurdle is funding, we are constantly searching for funds,” said Barbara Jones of the Urbana Rotary Club, regarding the food drive.
How can you get involved?
The next distribution in the Silverwood neighborhood is scheduled for Saturday, March 20th. Monetary donations can be made online through Quest Church (select Silver Hearts). Text donations can be made by sending "Silver Hearts" to 833-660-0040. Checks can be sent to Quest Church, 2004 Philo Road, Urbana, IL 61802 with “Silver Hearts” in the memo.
You can also contact Giovanna Dibenedetto at email@example.com or 217-418-3313.