Onward House has a rich history rooted in the settlement house movement that was created over a century ago to primarily help new immigrants access resources and find a community of support. Today we continue that mission by providing programs that empower families and individuals to access and value education, build successful careers, and support their families. Though our services and location have changed, our core mission to be a resource for the community remains the same.

Today, we focus on providing support by making available high-quality, affordable Early Head Start & Head Start programing that prepares children to be life-long learners. We provide an After School program that gives children ages 5 – 12 a safe place to play after school, so their parents can work. We provide a Community Computer Resource Center that provides basic and advanced technology classes and open access to the internet, which is needed for homework, career building, and job seeking. And we continue to offer quality programs that inspired our beginnings – ESL, citizenship, a food pantry, and assistance accessing other resources, such as mental health programs, when needed.

Onward Neighborhood House’s long history dates back to the mid-19th Century. Over the years, Onward House adapted and evolved with every unique generation that called West Town their home, and we have continued this approach in Belmont Cragin since 2008. Throughout our existence, our mission to provide critical education, childcare, and family support services has been a constant.

Early Beginnings (1865-1915)

In the years between the American Revolution and Reconstruction, state governments built public institutions for dependent and delinquent children, the disabled and the mentally ill. Counties established poorhouses for the aged, infirm and impoverished. This period of public involvement is often referred to as the “asylum movement.”

At the same time, voluntary societies formed to aid a variety of causes. These autonomous organizations varied from secular philanthropists to religious organizations whose aims were not to institutionalize, but aid. In 1868, a group of German, Scottish and Swedish settlers started a storefront Sunday school, a mission which developed into the Onward Presbyterian Church.

By the 1890s, progressive social workers and industrial reformers introduced novel ideas about social aid and naturalization with the new surge of immigrant workers from Southern and Eastern Europe. Among the most famous was Jane Addams, whose Hull House remains a symbol for the effectiveness and vitality of settlement houses. During this time, dozens of other settlement houses with parallel goals were established in Chicago and throughout the industrialized cities of the north.

By 1893, Chicago’s population had swelled to over one million. During this period, Chicago experienced annual population increases averaging 50,000 people, a majority of whom were immigrants. It was at this time that a small church building was erected at Ohio and Leavitt Streets.

Onward served as church, school, refuge and community center for thousands of impoverished newcomers by providing vital social services that gave them a foothold in the new world.

The Roaring, Progressive Twenties (1915-1929)

Prior to the 1920s, the idea of social service often referred to charity or relief, typically in the form of legal aid, immigrant assistance and traveler’s aid. Up to then, most hardships–both social and economic–had to be addressed by family and local efforts.

Many cultural and legislative changes occurred during this time, with three constitutional amendments adopted to promote equality. This level of involvement on behalf of the local, state and federal governments to ensure fair, safe and just treatment of the people also shaped perceptions of a government’s role in providing social programs. Evidence of a new approach during this period could be found in legislated programs like workman’s compensation and mother’s aid.

Amid these radical shifts in social thought, Onward began to further develop its role in providing services to the greater West Town community. During the 1920s, members of the Glencoe Union Church and Winnetka Congregational Church formed the first board of directors and renamed the mission, “Onward Neighborhood House.” By 1927 Miss Lena Seemann, a social worker from Canton, Ohio and world traveler, became the first Director of Onward House and introduced programs designed to meet every social service need. With the cooperation of the Chicago Congregational Union, a joint building program resulted in the establishment at 600 N. Leavitt Street, dedicated on May 19, 1929 to “the glory of God and the service of man.”

The Great Depression (1930-1941)

The shockwaves of the great depression that began on October 29, 1929 resonated throughout North America and Europe, leaving millions of Americans unemployed. Through Roosevelt’s New Deal, programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and The Works Progress Administration (WPA) were established to reduce unemployment. In addition, the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) and the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) provided relief to industries. Although these interventionist policies offered some reprieve to a poverty-stricken America, they could not fix the problems immediately or comprehensively.

The Great Depression altered the social and physical needs of clients and Onward changed course, concentrating on providing material help such as food, clothing and fuel as well as stress counseling.

The agency served 130,000 people annually through its education, youth and family support programs during this time.

Post-War Prosperity (1943-1959)

The outcome of the Second World War gave Americans returning to their routine lives a new sense of self and purpose. Additionally, the government could now begin to once again focus on domestic issues. On December 7, 1943, Onward Neighborhood House was officially incorporated as an Illinois non-profit organization “to maintain and conduct an organization to minister to the spiritual, moral, mental and physical needs of the community…”

The “Great Society” Period (1960-1967)

The 1960s ushered in an ambitious and transformative period that sought to eradicate poverty, improve education, end inequality and push for a more egalitarian United States. President Lyndon Johnson revealed his “Great Society” policy on April 23, 1964 at a Richard J. Daley fundraiser in Chicago. The goal was to implement government programs as a pro-active measure against poverty and discrimination. In 1965, as the nation launched its War on Poverty, Onward added the Head Start Program. Since that time, thousands of disadvantaged children, ages 3-5, have been enrolled in the program.

The increased prosperity experienced by Chicago’s three and a half million residents during this period was largely due to the combination of a rapidly growing local economy and government subsidized social programs designed to assist the dedicated labor force. More growth at Onward occurred as well. In 1967, Onward purchased the two story brick building at 2158 W. Ohio Street, expanding program space by 50 percent. The Annex building, directly across from Onward House’s primary facility on Leavitt Street, housed the Youth Program and community meeting space.

Changing Times (1968-1979)

1968 unexpectedly ushered in a tumultuous year that represented the changing attitudes of the general population and set the pace for a rough two decades to come. The North Vietnamese’s Tet Offensive in January of 1968 led to the eventual fall of Saigon. President Johnson shifted his attention away from domestic social reforms to global conflicts. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. in April and Robert Kennedy two months later brought about civil unrest that spilled over into violence in many parts of the country.

In the ensuing years, economic and social conditions deteriorated at an alarming pace. The 1970s battled through a series of recessions, inflation, oil embargos and high unemployment. In Tom Brune and Eduardo Camacho’s A Special Report: Race and Poverty in Chicago, 1980 census data showed that 1 in 5 Chicago residents lived below the poverty line, a 24 percent increase from 1970.

A Time for Smaller Government (1980-1989)

In 1980 the American people voted for a new direction in political leadership. President Reagan was elected to office due in part to his promises of eliminating what had become an inflated and often inefficient government. One side effect of cutting back on government expenditures was the downsizing or altogether elimination of some government programs that Americans utilized in seeking out a better quality of life. Chicago’s winter of 1983 forced public and private agencies to addresses problems of the city’s homeless population estimated to be as many as 25,000. Numerous organizations, including Onward Neighborhood House, experienced cuts in funding and witnessed the increasing decay of urban communities. Despite the rollbacks, Onward continued to pursue its mission with community involvement and yearly childcare enrollment.

Reinvesting in the Community (1990-2000)

After the recession that plagued most of the world throughout the late 80s and early 90s, the remainder of the decade was a time of substantial growth and production. With the end of the Cold War, technological innovations helped to put forth a new emphasis on trade. Improved communications throughout the world spurred the global economy to grow at a dizzying pace during this decade.

During this period of low poverty and unemployment rates, people began to reinvest in urban communities. Cities were once again not only seen as places to work, but also to live.

In 1996 Onward purchased its main building at 600 N. Leavitt Street from the Community Renewal Society of Chicago.

The three story brick building was acquired through pro bono assistance provided by professional, legal and community organizations in conjunction with board, staff and volunteer efforts. The purchased space housed classrooms, a day care facility, and served as Onward’s office headquarters.

A New Era (2000-2007)

The digital era continued to progress with breakneck speed despite the Y2K scare and dot com bust. New technology became more accessible than ever.

Acknowledging the need for proper technology training in a post-industrial economy, and the future implications of a digital divide in computer fluency among higher income and lower income people, Onward established its Community Computer Resource Center (CCRC) in 2000.

Cities across the country continue to flourish. The sons and daughters of families whose parents had left the city for the suburbs were returning to urban areas to build their own families and professional lives. Despite the marks of neighborhood gentrification and improved commerce, the aesthetic facelifts and vast reductions in crime have left many long-term residents increasingly marginalized or have forced them to move. According to U.S. census records, between 1990 and 2000 West Town’s median household income increased 56 percent, residents with Bachelor’s Degrees shot up a staggering 272 percent, and the median housing value (adjusted for inflation) jumped 189 percent.

Despite this demographic shift, families in West Town continued to benefit from Onward House services. Onward House began to witness yet another cycle of immigration in the neighborhood with the increased enrollment of Ukrainian children.

In other parts of the city, displaced residents from newly gentrified areas and razed public housing migrated and concentrated. In the Belmont Cragin Community Area, 2000 Census figures showed a 38% population increase, with an 88 percent increase in poverty since 1990. As part of the strategic development identified by Onward’s Board of Directors, a new facility was developed in Belmont Cragin on Chicago’s Northwest side at 5423 W. Diversey Avenue. Onward sold the underutilized 2158 W. Ohio building to kick start the fund for the new site’s capital campaign.


  • Farber, David. “1968 Year Page.” Encyclopedia of Chicago.
  • Goodwin, Joanne L. “Social Service.” Encyclopedia of Chicago.
  • Reiff, Janice L. “Increases in Poverty, 1970–1980.” Encyclopedia of Chicago.