Citizen Spotlight: Tocarra Eldridge-Robinson, Still I Rise

Tocarra Eldridge-Robinson, executive director of Kankakee-based nonprofit Still I Rise, poses in downtown Kankakee. Founded in October 2014, the organization helps to empower low-income and underprivileged youth and young adults to create a positive and healthy change in society.

Just like moons and like suns; With the certainty of tides; Just like hopes springing high; Still I’ll rise,” these words written by Maya Angelou in her poem “Still I Rise” inspired a local organization of the same name.

“Of course, [the name] goes back to the inspiration from the poem and that’s very inspirational so we said, ‘that would be very inspiring and empowering’ every time someone said ‘Still I Rise,’” explained Tocarra Eldridge-Robinson, founder and executive director of Still I Rise.

Still I Rise is a dynamic and innovative leadership development nonprofit organization that empowers low-income and underprivileged youth and young adults to create a positive and healthy change in society.

Eldridge-Robinson started the organization in 2014 to provide opportunities for local youth to expand their knowledge on a myriad of topics.

“We came to the table and realized that there was a void for the youth and young adults outside of the school district, there were no other educational or empowerment programs in place in the area,” she recalled.

“So, we felt like there was a need to give them something positive to participate in and, hopefully, that would lessen the crime or them getting into trouble. Things of that nature.”

Still I Rise offers programs and workshops in categories such as health and wellness, entrepreneurship, arts and culture and financial literacy. For health and wellness seminars, the organization has partnered in the past with the American Diabetes Association. For financial literacy, they’ve partnered with PNC Bank.

Prior to the pandemic, these workshops were held at Kankakee Public Library. With news of a planned incubator arriving in downtown Kankakee, the organization plans to utilize this new space in a central area.

Since the pandemic, a major focus of the organization has been organizing food distributions for local individuals and families in need. A distribution right before Christmas served over 300 families.

Still I Rise has partnered with Top Box Foods and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois for food distributions, and has distributed food to thousands of families who are in need. Eldridge-Robinson noted that they plan to do more food distributions in the new year.

While the organization currently is in the planning phases of 2022, Eldridge-Robinson shared that they could always use donations “to serve more. We desire to serve more people in our community.”

In addition to more food distributions, they are looking to host more blanket and care packages giveaways for the homeless, similar to a giveaway the organization held in conjunction with 5-Star Wings just before the new year where they gave winter accessories and a chicken dinner to those in need.

Continuing to rise

When asked what she is looking forward to in 2022, Eldridge-Robinson shared her hopes to “broaden the amount of individuals that we serve, we’re looking to serve more individuals. Also to expand our programs as well.”

Still I Rise recently received the Nonprofit of the Year Award from the Kankakee County Chamber of Commerce.

“That was very, very rewarding,” said Eldridge-Robinson. “It’s exciting and it just makes us drive more and want to do more.”

“We are unlike any other organization,” said Eldridge-Robinson’s husband, Aaron Robinson, who services as the organization’s operations manager. “We’re humble individuals, and we don’t want any accolades or pats on the back, what we do is from the heart. We love our community, and we embrace everyone, no matter what walk of life.”

Eldridge-Robinson acknowledged that it is not a one-person show and thanked the sponsors who help make what the organization does possible. She also noted that Still I Rise has about 20 “die-hard” volunteers.

“We distributed food in the pouring rain when we had that storm and nobody left,” she said of the volunteers.

The organization is geared toward youth ages 7 to 25, and every year, Still I Rise hosts a health and wellness event where physicians come to speak to and educate the crowd. In the past, Congresswoman Robin Kelly has presented.

When it comes to the youth the organization serves, Eldridge-Robinson shares advice from the heart.

“I would tell [youth] to follow their heart and would encourage them to be passionate about giving back to their community because that’s what it’s all about,” she said. “Remain inspired and be connected to the community — get out and network and meet people so that their community feels like home, like it should feel.”

And while the organization works to serve the youth, the youth give back to Eldridge-Robinson in their way. She mentioned that she has been impacted “when the youth will come up and tell a success story about how being part of our organization helped them grow in a certain area or how we really helped them more than we know.”

At the end of the day, the motivation to help others comes from knowing the benefits of having a strong support system.

“With Tocarra, many people have personal challenges that they go through in life. People may not know that she lost her brother several years ago, and we were still able to get out and serve the community,” said Robinson.

“A couple of years after that, she lost her grandmother, who she was close to, and we still came out here and served the community. They were always supportive of us, and I don’t want to forget about those who are no longer here that supported this endeavor. No matter what, we use their energy to continue to do what we do because they believed in us.”

For more information on Still I Rise, go to still-irise.org.