While backpacking through Yellowstone National Park, Bree Hughes’ friend suffered a massive seizure caused by a tumor on her spine. In just one year, she was forced to learn to walk again three different times. To raise money and awareness, Hughes turned to running.
Having caught the philanthropic bug, Hughes was introduced to Mercy Home for Boys & Girls, a nonprofit focused on saving young lives by providing a safe, nurturing residential treatment home. She quickly joined the executive board.
We talked to Bree about her involvement in the organization which has broken the cycle of neglect and abuse for over 30,000 kids since 1887, her first marathon which won’t quite go as planned this year, and how the mission of Mercy Home for Boys & Girls keeps her going.
Why did you start running?
I started running about three years ago to help raise money for a friend of mine who suffered a massive seizure while backpacking in Yosemite. It turned out she had two serious tumors on her spine and brain. After multiple procedures, learning to re-walk three separate times in one year, and countless other obstacles, I figured that if she could learn to walk three different times than I could start running and raise some funds to help with the medical costs. With that, I started running every race I could, was introduced to the running world, bought my first pair of running shoes at Fleet Feet, and dove headfirst into the running world.
Does running for a cause make running easier?
Absolutely. Running for a cause absolutely makes a difference and changes your entire mindset during those long runs. For me, distance runs always become a game of mind over matter... with running for Mercy Home, this is completely true and falls within this mindset. The challenges and struggles that the kids of Mercy Home face day in and day out are something that is consistently on my mind. When I start to feel fatigued, like I can't possibly run another mile, when stopping just short of mile 15 or 16 seems all too easy to do, I think about why it is that I am running. I am running for these kids and knowing that makes it so that I have no excuses to stop...because neither do they.
How did you find out about Mercy Home for Boys & Girls in Chicago?
A friend of mine was volunteering for a charity fundraiser and I volunteered to help at the event. I then received a tour from the people at the home, saw the facility, and got to know about their mission. It completely aligned with my values and took a realistic look at the challenges kids have in our city and gave them the chance to live in a safe environment, get the help they need, get to and from school, and give them the experience and tools to be successful. It's an absolutely amazing place that holds true to their mission and doesn't get caught up in the politics.
You progressed from a volunteer to a board member quickly. What made the decision so easy?
When I find a place or group that I see truly trying to make positive changes and putting their words into action, I jump right in. I saw an opportunity for me to really help this organization and the kids they were serving so applied and was accepted onto the Associate Board. I have taught in at-risk communities most of my teaching career and was astounded by Mercy Home if I had known about them sooner I truly think they could have helped many of my former students.
Having taught at a not-for-profit school in Chicago, did it make your transition to a board member at Mercy Home easier?
Yes. I have had the first-hand experience with what underprivileged communities struggle with in order to succeed the basic needs of schooling and everyday life. I saw that Mercy Home really focused on not just getting the kids to and from school, but understood the underlying need for counseling, support, therapy, positive and accessible role models, life and job skills (as they get older), a safe place to sleep, learn and study. Mercy Home was the miracle place I had dreamed of for some of my students in the past. Knowing a place like this was a reality only motivated me to help with fundraising, volunteering, and basically anything else I could do to help them.
Do children live at Mercy Home?
Yes, kids live at the home, receive rides to and from school, are helped to find after-school jobs, have an epic fieldhouse they can go to after school, have built up an amazing program for past kids from Mercy Home to come back, and also help older kids of Mercy Home find apartments after they leave the home.
Where do they go after they graduate?
Many of them receive scholarships for college. Almost all of them have tutors and a mentor, receive tutoring, academic advising, and more. Mercy Home has an amazing, hands-on program that stays on top of these kids well after they leave the home. It isn't just a stepping stone, its a relationship that lasts a lifetime and comes with personal relationships.
What are the different ways that someone can volunteer or support Mercy Home?
We have a ton of opportunities including mentoring, tutoring, volunteering, different events throughout the year including Field Day, Career Day, Christmas parties, volunteering to raise money during St. Patty's day parade, formal events, joining a board. If someone wants to help, they just need to call or email and we will provide you a way to help!
When you got the news that the Chicago Marathon was going virtual, how did you find the motivation to keep training and raising money?
While it was definitely a disappointment, the fact didn't change that these kids still needed help. The boys' campus is still open, we still have staff working with all of the kids, providing the support for online learning, meals....everything is still occurring, just differently because of COVID. The bottom line remains that Mercy Home is still serving these kids and that doesn't stop because of COVID. If anything it has become harder to fundraise because all of the events and major fundraising events were canceled so this is something I can still do to help bring awareness and funds.
Where do your young people come from?
All around Chicago.
On average, how long do youth stay at Mercy Home?
Ranges for every child and their age, it can be a few months or a few years.
What impact does Mercy Home have on the community of Chicago?
Changing lives for the better every single day their doors are open for the kids and families that it serves.