Not many things stay the same over the course of a century. New technologies are developed, generations of people come and go, and cultural shifts radically alter the behavior and landscape of the world.
But these past 100 years, one local thing which has remained virtually the same is Pillars Community Health, an organization which has held onto an overarching ethos of care and dedication to the most vulnerable residents of the greater Riverside-Brookfield community.
Celebrating its centennial since January, Pillars Community Health has provided medical care, mental health resources and family assistance throughout the western suburbs since 1921.
“From the very beginning, and often with only a couple of people sitting around the table, staff and volunteers and donors have problem-solved and piloted new initiatives so their neighbors can have access to the care they need, when they need it,” said Angela Curran, president and CEO of Pillars. “All the turbulence of the last year just makes it more important to celebrate a 100-year commitment to looking after our neighbors, regardless of race, income or politics.”
Since the organization’s most recent merger with Community Nurse in 2018, Pillars has been the area’s main leader in providing community-based mental health, substance-use disorder services, domestic/sexual violence services and medical and dental care across nine locations as well as virtually.
Pillars’ story began on Jan. 24, 1921, when the state chairman of the Child Welfare League spoke to the LaGrange Public Welfare Committee chapter about hiring a local nurse for the community. The first paid community nurse, Marion Jean MacLeod, began providing wellness checkups for babies from the back room of a drugstore in LaGrange with the volunteer assistance of physician Dr. J.A. Gardiner.
As the cost of healthcare increased, in 1928 Community Nurse joined Berwyn Community Welfare Association in meeting the social needs of area families who were increasingly requesting township relief funds.
In the 1930s, Community Nurse pivoted toward social welfare work during the Great Depression, giving small rent loans for low-income families, providing eyeglasses and opening an employment bureau to help unemployed men. And in 1939, the Episcopal Church in LaGrange donated an old parish home to Community Nurse to open a daycare.
The 1950s brought about a national deinstitutionalization policy for mental health patients, effectively moving people with mental illness out of state-run asylums and into mainstream society.
Several of Pillars’ predecessor organizations (including Southwest Suburban Mental Health Association and Family Services of LaGrange) stepped up to provide community-based mental health services. A group called Community Family Services eventually opened clinical offices inside Riverside Township Hall and Riverside-Brookfield High School in 1980.
Throughout the 1970s, when local police noticed a huge uptick in domestic violence calls, the Des Plaines Valley Community center began exploring the possibility of opening a domestic violence shelter for the area.
Eventually, the Constance Morris House opened in Brookfield on April 24, 1979. The shelter was later moved in the 1980s to its present-day, undisclosed location in the west suburbs.
Fast-forward to January 2018, when Pillars and Community Nurse formally merged, combining health and social services under one name and helping sustain services through a broader set of funding streams.
Today, amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, Pillars is on the front lines, launching testing sites and vaccination programs, and incorporating dozens of new virtual services across all programs. In 2020 alone, Pillars served nearly 1,500 clients from the towns in the Landmark’s coverage area.
To Jackie Gibson, vice president of marketing and business development for Pillars, what sets the organization apart from others in the western suburbs is its deep line of roots in the community.
“We literally are community-based — we have nine locations in the western suburbs that are in most cases, for many people, within walking distance or a short Metra or bus ride away,” she said. “Distinguishing us from a hospital system or a national organization, we really are a part of these neighborhoods.”
According to Gibson, Pillars was one of the first organizations in Illinois to offer home-based mental health services for people who either couldn’t be seen in person or who would benefit from being seen in the home environment, so that a clinician could assess how the home environment might be impacting mental health.
“We have always shifted to the community’s specific needs,” she added. “We’ve never been afraid to pivot what we’re doing in order to address the most critical needs of the community, and innovating to meet those needs.”
To help celebrate and educate the community on their century-long mission, Pillars has a 100th anniversary historical summary available for free download at PillarsCommunityHealth.org/100.
To learn more about their services, visit PillarsCommunityHealth.org or call 708-PILLARS.