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Auroran helps the homeless across the land

Updated: May 21, 2012 8:10AM

No matter where we wander, Aurora always seems to pull its former citizens back. This week Diane Nilan, former associate director of Hesed House, who has been criss-crossing the country on an advocacy campaign to address homelessness, was back in the City of Lights to speak at Aurora University and receive an award from DuPage County Bridge Communities, honoring her efforts on behalf of homeless children.

As you may remember from a previous column, Nilan is unique. She followed literally the biblical command to sell what you own and give to the poor (Matthew 19:21) when she liquidated her assets, including her townhome, making her only residence a modest RV. She constantly travels the country to meet homeless families and youth, create videos to help others understand the causes and potential solutions for homelessness, and raise money to help those in desperate need. The slogan for “Hear Us” (her not-for-profit organization) is “Giving voice and visibility to homeless kids.” She has gotten help with the cost of fuel by winning Citgo’s “Fueling Good” contest and done miraculous things on a shoestring budget.

I asked her what moments stand out for her as she reflects upon this amazing seven-year journey. She had too many stories to share them all. I was struck by the story of Rumi, an 11-year-old boy who agreed to testify at a congressional hearing on homelessness. Nilan was able to transport him and some others to Washington, D.C., so his voice would be heard. Nilan said, “Listening to Rumi and other kids courageously and articulately sharing their experiences of homelessness both broke my heart and inflamed my passion to continue to work for the millions of families and youth without homes in this country.”

I also found it ironic and sad when Nilan told me about how motels near Disney World too often provide “what passes for emergency shelter for thousands of families.” She explained, “In two (Florida) counties, over 1,000 school-age children stay there with their families, coping with hunger, pending eviction and desperation, compared to the fun-in-the-sun tourists under the same roof. It’s a bizarre contrast, one which reflects the disparity in our society today.”

I asked Nilan what she was most proud of so far. Still ranking toward the top was the legislation she was able to pass to help homeless children attend school. In Illinois this was the “Education for Homeless Children Act” in 1994 and on a national level, the 2001 McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act.

She is also quite proud of her documentaries, “My Own Four Walls,” and her latest effort, “On the Edge: Family Homelessness in America,” which she said “has evoked a tremendous response from audiences everywhere.” She is editing a new film called “Littlest Nomads” about the almost invisible infant and toddler homeless population.

Where will she be going after this visit? Nilan answered that in mid-May “I head to a conference for those working with young homeless children in Boston, then have a smattering of speaking engagements and filming opportunities out East and South.” She hopes to have the chance in North Carolina to “exercise my raspberry picking skills that I’ve honed over the past six years. Then I’ll probably land back in the (Aurora) area mid-July.”

One of the challenges Nilan struggles with is seeing people in poverty “continue to struggle not only for survival but for respect and understanding.” She and her RV (named Tillie) keep plugging along, trying to make the biggest difference they can in what seems like an overwhelming ocean of poverty and despair. But she never gives up and she understands herself to be just one humble soldier in a larger war. “I am honored to be an instrument in the pursuit of justice and equality,” said Nilan.

You can learn more about Nilan’s work, order her videos, and support what she’s doing at her website: You can also follow her work on Facebook. This world could use a thousand more like her.

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