Rita Alvarez

My name is Rita Alvarez. I am the executive director of Sunflower Project US. My parents and eight siblings journeyed from Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico to the far southeast side of Chicago in 1958. My father arrived here prior and received sponsorship from a kind gentleman who was a manager at the then South Shore Country Club. My father worked as a maintenance person at the club. In Mexico, my parents owned and operated a small neighborhood grocery store, El Buen Vecino, and my father also drove a taxi.

I was born two years after my family’s arrival to Chicago. I grew up four blocks west of the US Steel Mill. At that time, in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, it was booming. Then the steel mill was abandoned, and now you see the land the way it is. We’ve had promises to rebuild something, but politicians and developers have come and gone.

I have had multiple careers, each just as rewarding as the next. I have been a cashier at Goldblatt’s Department Store–that was my first job in the 1970s, while I was in high school. I was a telephone operator at a local hospital, a meter reader for the gas company, a laborer.

I was a project coordinator for an agency working for clients with disabilities–which is how I met Kathy, my partner of 33 years. We met in 1990–this week, in fact! We marched for the Americans with Disabilities Act the week of March 10 to March 17, 1990. The cherry blossoms were in full bloom in Washington, DC. We marched with thousands of others–people with disabilities and their supporters–it was an awesome time.

In the early 90s, I became a primary grade teacher and taught kindergarten and first grade, a CPS consultant for the Office of Language and Cultural Education, and a museum educator for 8 years at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago. In addition to my work with Sunflower Project US, I have volunteered at the Museum of Science and Industry since 2006.

My favorite part of my community are my neighbors–my fellow southeast siders–and living close to many of my family members. I come from a large family, and we are all still on the southeast side.

I would like to see better enforcement of wheelchair accessibility and more pathway facilitation to accessibility for our business owners by our elected officials and public offices. I’d love to see more access to family friendly and safe community activities. I would like our local alderpeople, our council people, and our mayor to spend more time teaching people or giving people pathways to make their businesses accessible.

Kathryn Fitzgerald

I am a 65-year-old woman of Irish descent. I have been a person with a severe disability for 36 years, Guillain-Barré syndrome. My partner of 33 years and I bought a house on the southeast side of Chicago 27 years ago. We paid $42,000. Every summer we “walk” (I roll in the electric wheelchair) four miles round trip, stopping to talk with our neighbors and enjoying the landscaping of their homes. I have never been scared or afraid in our neighborhood, though I would like to see more commercial accessible ventures in the immediate area to aid with employment.

The city of Chicago has dropped the ball on enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) throughout the neighborhoods. So many individuals use a wheelchair and more are ambulatory disabled. We push our alderpeople to make changes, but it should not be up to a couple of people. The ADA is a law. The city needs to step up.

We started a 501(c)(3), Sunflower Project US, to teach first- and second-graders about ecology and how to plant a tiny seed that will grow 10 to 15 feet tall on their school grounds. We go back in the fall and teach them to harvest the mammoth plants. This is the cycle. We have collaborated with artists Maria Villareal and Roman Villareal to make paint from the parts of a mammoth sunflower. We provided stalks for the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art for fort building on a Family Day.

On Earth Day, April 22, 2023 we are holding a Sunflower Season Kickoff Event from 1 to 4pm at the Calumet Park District Fieldhouse (9801 S. Ave. G, Chicago). Our plan for the future is to plant a huge sunflower maze with summer activities. Everyone is welcome!

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