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The Beginning of the Great Wall

To honor 30 years of Cara’s work to eradicate poverty, we are sharing the stories behind the rituals, milestones, and celebrations that have helped build the spirit of our community. In this story, Cara staff share the origins and impact of our Great Wall.

What have you accomplished in the past year…

In 2006, we wanted to find a meaningful way to celebrate our participants who stayed on their job for one full year after completing our training program and securing employment.

We decided to build a Wall of Fame and hang certificates of achievement on prominent walls of our old location at 703 W. Monroe. It served as a powerful source of motivation for our community, and it became the cherished piece of Cara Collective culture known as our Great Wall.

Staff members tell stories of our earliest iterations of the Great Wall: how our coaches would spend Friday afternoons making a lot of ruckus, punching holes and hammering grommets into certificates. They would then string them together with fishing line and climb all over the place, determined to display them in a beautiful way.

As time went on and our organization grew, so did the size and design of the Great Wall into the one you see at our downtown campus today. We don’t use fishing line anymore, but the meaning behind the tradition has always stayed the same:

The Great Wall represents the time, growth, and learning it takes to graduate from Cara and transform your life.

Motivations in 2009 with our then Great Wall at 703 W. Monroe

“When participants make the Great Wall and graduate from Cara, it’s almost as if they are getting a stamp on their passport; they know their achievements over the past year will never be erased.”

Nora Vail, Manager of Coaching & Retention

If we can’t see it, we can’t actualize it

When you look at the certificates hanging on the Great Wall, you see that each is personal, reflecting the accomplishments and successes of our participants. You see a new graduate’s name, the company where they work, the date they made their year on the job, and a quote that inspired them to persevere through the year.

The month before participants graduate from our program and their names go up on our wall, we ask them to think about the question “What have you accomplished in the past year and how specifically did you achieve this?”

Then, our new graduates share their answers during a special Motivations we call the Great Wall Ceremony, surrounded by family and friends, new graduates, current participants, alumni, Cara Collective staff, employers, and supporters.

Erick makes his first year on the job with Chicago Transit Authority

“So often, if we can’t see it, we can’t actualize it. That’s why it is so important for the people still sitting in those chairs as current participants to see a graduate come back and say ‘I sat in those chairs,’ or talk about the raise they got or what they’ve accomplished in the past year. It’s truly motivating.”

Eric Weinheimer, Former Cara President & CEO

Why one year

We are often asked why one year on the job is so important at Cara when most workforce development programs measure their success by participants reaching anywhere from 90 days to six months on the job. The reason we take a unique, extended approach is because life happens in cycles for all of us; a lot of change occurs over the course of 12 months.

For example, if someone gets a job in January, and we don’t coach and measure their retention for a whole year, we might not be there for when their kids go back to school in the fall, when their utility bills go up and down according to the seasons, or the moment they are ready to move into their first apartment.

We want to ensure that everyone in our community has the time and support to sort through all of these changes, because real, lasting transformation isn’t only about finding a job. Our focus is intentionally on self-actualization and leadership development. Making it onto the Great Wall gives participants an opportunity to take a moment, pause, reflect, and acknowledge this journey and what it took to get to this point.

To celebrate her first anniversary at Rush University Medical Center, Corneisha invites her boss, Rick, to the Great Wall Ceremony

“Participants come back a year later believing ‘I’m actually a leader in my space, and I have pride and purpose in my work.’”

Bob White, Chief Program Officer

Great Walls all over Chicago and beyond

We know that the Great Wall doesn’t just live at Cara; there are Great Walls all over Chicago and around the country.

We see them in Atlanta, Georgia and Fort Wayne, Indiana, home to our Cara Plus affiliates, Atlanta Mission and Lutheran Social Services of Indiana. These organizations developed workforce development programs based on Cara’s method; and each chose to build a Great Wall of their own.

Lutheran Social Services of Indiana celebrates LSSI Works graduates with their own Great Wall

And in Chicago, on more than a few occasions, members of our staff have visited graduates’ homes where they see their Great Wall certificate framed on the wall.

Those framed certificates in people’s homes let us know this is not about Cara anymore; this is so much bigger. Our graduates are putting their name on their wall in their own home.

Our mission is so much more than helping people get employment; we’re creating a community where people thrive and finally feel good about themselves.

Photo 1: Group Photo, Great Wall 2015, Photo 2: Marquis Washington, Great Wall 2018, Photo 3: Family Photo Great Wall, April 2018, Photo 4: Jesse with Participants in 2019, Photo 5: David and Family, Great Wall 2018, Photo 6: Great Wall 2017

Your support ensures more rituals, milestones, and celebrations will be celebrated with our community over the next 30 years. Plus, for the month of September, all gifts made in honor of our 30th Anniversary will be matched dollar for dollar up to $30,000 thanks to a generous gift from The Owens Foundation. Please click here to make a gift.