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AARP AARP States Illinois Livable Communities

AARP Community Challenge Grants Awarded to 5 Illinois Organizations

Working as a pastor on the west side of Chicago, Mattie Phillips dreamed of building a garden in a vacant lot next to her church. Thanks to a 2021 AARP Community Challenge Grant, Phillips is building that garden in a neighborhood lacking fresh and nutritious food.
Anjali Pinto

Mattie Phillips, pastor at Jesus Word Center Life Changing Ministries, has dreamed for years of creating a garden on a vacant lot next to the church in the North Lawndale neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side.

The area’s residents lack access to sources of fresh, nutritious food, with an estimated 57 percent eating less than one serving of vegetables daily, according to the nonprofit North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council. But while the church owned land for the garden, it didn’t have money to buy soil, plants and lumber to construct raised beds—until now.

Thanks to a 2021 AARP Community Challenge grant, volunteers will be able to plant collard greens, tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and other vegetables.

Phillips plans to offer cooking classes to show residents how to prepare authentic Southern dishes using the greens. She also wants to add benches, making the space a respite for older adults. “We are always looking for ways to enhance our community so residents can live a better life,” Phillips says. 

The Chicago church is one of five winners in Illinois, and 244 nationwide, of 2021 AARP Community Challenge grants. The program supports improvements to public spaces, diversity and inclusion efforts, transportation, coronavirus recovery, housing and civic engagement. 

AARP Illinois received a record 90 applications, with the amounts requested ranging from $3,000 to $10,000, says Ellen Acevedo, associate state director of volunteer engagement and mobilization.

“A lot of times the applicants aren’t asking for a lot of money, and what they want to do with it is really incredible,” she says.

Murals, park seating, more 

Since its inception in 2017, the program has awarded more than $9 million to 804 quick-action projects around the country. 

In Illinois this year’s other grant winners are:

  • Phoenix Community Development Services, which will paint a mural on a housing project. The Peoria nonprofit is the largest provider of supportive housing in the Tri-County area of Central Illinois, with apartments that house 170 people—more than half of whom are 50 or older, says CEO Christine Kahl. Local artist Heather Ford Kodrick, who teaches at nearby Bradley University, will design the mural and lead efforts to paint it, with help from residents of the area.
  • The Rogers Park Business Alliance, on Chicago’s Far North Side, which will design a public art project—“Cross the Street: Art on Clark”—to help beautify the neighborhood’s 2-mile Clark Street business corridor. It “will make Rogers Park more of a destination and build on what’s already happening,” says Anthony Mesok, owner of Bark Place, a neighborhood pet-care and grooming business. 
  • The village of Joppa, a rural community of about 300 people in Southern Illinois, which will improve a park with tire swings, to appeal to younger residents, and new seating to accommodate those 65 and older, who make up roughly 21 percent of its population, according to town officials.
  • The city of Urbana, which will use an AARP grant to support its Growing Community Initiative. It invites local artists to design and install artwork, including benches, murals and sculptures, in area gardens. Selected through a jury process, the artwork will celebrate priorities including sustainability, diversity, the local food system, native plants and community-building among neighbors. 

To learn more about the AARP Community Challenge program and how to apply, go to And find information on the AARP Livable Communities initiative at

Lisa Bertagnoli is a writer living in Chicago.

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