Community builder. Advocate. CNN Hero. Maywood native Debra Vines wears all the hats as CEO and founder of The Answer, Inc., a Forest Park-based organization that supports Black and brown people with intellectual or developmental disabilities and their families.
The Top 10 CNN Heroes nominee title is one Vines started sporting Nov. 3, a recognition for her work with the nonprofit The Answer since its inception in 2007.
Vines estimates The Answer has supplied resources, training and programming for thousands of individuals and caregivers. A staple on the Far West Side, The Answer hosts events that foster the inclusion of people with intellectual or developmental disabilities into the larger community. From holding caregiver support groups; hosting fundraisers to send individuals with disabilities to camp; to conducting anti-bullying workshops for schools and autism awareness seminars for first responders, Vines said The Answer exists to be an asset to those who come through its doors.
“Everything we create is a blueprint of a need from the community,” Vines said. “When you think about Black and brown communities, disabilities are always at the bottom of the totem pole. It’s like ‘Oh, by the way, let’s give them a little help.’ That’s why I’m really boastful and unapologetic about the work that I do. My primary concern is the underresourced community. We never turn anyone away.”
On a recent Saturday, a 6-year-old girl in a pink coat bounced on her toes inside a Broadview Park District community center as her parents signed her in to partake in three hours of activities within The Answer’s Spectrum University, activities such as dance, reading and social skills classes. Open to individuals from elementary school and beyond, the programming gives students an opportunity to learn and engage with peers while giving their caregivers a bit of a respite.
“Debra is a godsend,” said Willie Akins, Broadview resident and mother to Drenna Akins, a 47-year-old with Down syndrome. “Drenna saw her brother go to college, saw her sister go to college and she wanted to go to college. She heard about Spectrum University, heard the word university and she’s in college. Drenna is also a performer and Music N Me, that is her heart … my daughter’s life is complete.”
Lydia Riley has been a fan of Vines for years. She considers The Answer her village, one that she became a part of when her oldest son, Camron, now 35, was diagnosed with Down syndrome. “This village right here, I think is the most important one because it’s about them and their confidence, how they feel and how they relate to their peers,” she said.
Vines has been all about serving families with loved ones who have intellectual and developmental disabilities after struggling to find resources for her youngest son, Jason Harlan, 35, when he was diagnosed with autism as a toddler. With her late husband working nights, Vines said she felt helpless, alone and depressed as her world centered on seeking services for Harlan. What support she found was costly and not centrally located.
So she decided to fill the need herself by starting The Answer, which began at the Maywood library as a support-group meeting for parents and guardians to talk about their experiences and challenges. That was in September 2007. By April 2008, Vines and her husband had their 501(c)(3) and the nonprofit has been growing ever since.
“Our main goal is to make sure that families get what they need,” Vines said. “A lot of other agencies just do one thing. Our agency provides education, recreation, support, workforce development and social skills. We want to make sure our kids not only have a good time, but get life skills.”
Before The Answer, Riley and Akins were doing what Vines did with her child — driving anywhere and everywhere so their kids could participate in quality, engaging programming. After leaving state-funded educational programming, both did what they could to make sure their children were not just sitting at home idle every day. Camron and Drenna are in day programs during the week, but weekends and 24-hour support is another niche that The Answer provides. Both moms said Vines’ presence made them better advocates for their children and other families that can relate to their circumstances.
“We’re not going to talk about it; we’re gonna be about it,” Akins said. “Debra opened the door out here to get it going.”
“The Answer was an awakening for a lot of people in this community and just to see it grow and prosper to her now being nominated a CNN Hero, speaks volumes,” Riley said.
Broadview Mayor Katrina Thompson said she crossed paths with Vines when Thompson was executive director at the Broadview Park District and has been a supporter since because Vines “is doing the work.”
“I can’t thank her enough for that awareness of, ‘They are no different from you and I,’ ” Thompson said. “She’s doing the work not just for the people that live in the township or the West Side of Chicago. She taps into people across the state, and when you become an influencer on a platform such as a CNN hero, it should bring more awareness to the services that these families need.”
Illinois state Rep. La Shawn Ford, 8th, said the state needs Vines as a partner given her work with families and helping professionals learn how to recognize and respect individuals with autism. He and others say Vines’ recognition on a national level was long overdue.
For the Top 10 CNN Hero nominees, Subaru matched donations through a GoFundMe campaign from Nov. 29, 2022, to Jan. 3, 2023, up to $50,000 per hero. Vines raised a little over $20,000. Prior to her nomination, Vines was keeping The Answer afloat through fundraising and grants.
The CNN Hero winner was Nelly Cheboi, who creates computer labs for Kenyan schoolchildren.
Vines said her CNN honor is starting to sink in.
“I would like for the people in the city of Chicago to be excited about us,” she said. “People have been calling me from all over the United States. I got a call from an organization in Uganda that wants to fly me out for three weeks to teach parents how to advocate. We’re intentional on developing relationships and networking so if someone needs us, they have us.”
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