Chicago Lawyer -

Replacing charity with opportunity

May 01, 2013
By Dustin J. Seibert

Among the many photos and keepsakes that decorate Tom Tuohy's office is a picture collage from a 1989 Christmas Eve party at a homeless shelter in the Englewood neighborhood.

It was from the very first event of Dreams for Kids, a Chicago-based nonprofit youth organization Tuohy founded. He was there to deliver gifts to underprivileged children at Clara's House.

"That's me there, in the bad sweater," he said, laughing and pointing at the collage.

The self-deprecating line is indicative of Tuohy's overall demeanor — an affable, welcoming man who wears his heart on his sleeve. A trim 6 feet tall with a warm smile, he's every bit the appropriate face and voice for Dreams for Kids, which unites young people from all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds and levels of physical ability and teaches them to become active citizens and have a positive impact on society.

While Dreams for Kids has kept Tuohy's attention for more than two decades, being the sole practitioner of Tuohy Law Offices is something he has done for more than three. Running a philanthropic nonprofit and a for-profit law firm are two seemingly disparate tasks, but Tuohy has managed to blur the lines of his work in a fashion that brings it all back to the same place — helping uplift the world's have-nots.

Humble beginnings

To understand Tuohy's desire to work with underprivileged children is to know that he sees himself reflected in them.

Tom Tuohy
Tom Tuohy shares a laugh with CICS Bucktown eighth-grader Adrian Gonzalez, 14, while discussing efforts to raise money to build a well in Africa. The Dream Leaders program, run through Tuohy's nonprofit Dreams for Kids, is designed to create young leaders who can go into the community and create other leaders.
Photos by Natalie Battaglia.

Born above a liquor store on Austin and North avenues, Tuohy is a third-generation, Irish-American product of a 1950s and '60s, lower-middle-class upbringing. His father, Patrick Jr., abandoned the family when Tuohy was 8, leaving his mother Patricia to raise him and his three older siblings.

"People ask all the time why I do this work," he said. "I do it because I was one of those kids."

During eighth grade, Tuohy decided to become a lawyer for no other reason than the expected paycheck and social status that accompanied the profession.

"I decided that it would be my way out," he said. "I was determined to be a successful lawyer, but I was going about it the wrong way. It would have been all about materialism and the illusion of what success really is. I would have been the one people told bad lawyer jokes about."

After graduating from Holy Cross High School in River Grove in 1975, Tuohy attended DePaul University, receiving a bachelor's degree in marketing in 1979 before attending DePaul University College of Law. During his undergrad days, he became a law clerk at the now-defunct Green Block & Associates.

Tuohy's first career-altering spark of enlightenment came by way of Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, who stopped by the office to visit a secretary at the firm who had a son on White's tumbling team, the Jesse White Tumblers. Instead of shying away, the 19-year-old introduced himself to White.

"I always tell young people not to hesitate to say hello if they think someone is more important than them," Tuohy said. "He turned out to be the guy who everyone that's met him knows him to be — friendly, kind and generous."

White, then a state representative, invited Tuohy to an impromptu outreach for underprivileged kids in the now-demolished Cabrini-Green housing project in 1976. Seeing the youths in the troubled environment helped Tuohy put his own upbringing in perspective.

"The day he took me into Cabrini-Green was the day I stopped feeling sorry for myself," he said.

Tuohy, 55, became an attorney for White and his tumblers not long after finishing law school in 1982, and the partnership never ended. Today, Tuohy serves on White's executive board and White is the chairman of the Dreams for Kids advisory board.

White said he's "still baffled" by Tuohy's continued success working with young people.

"I want to applaud, commend and thank him for making a difference in the lives of those in need," White said. "The kids that he addresses are on the lower rung of the ladder. Without his assistance, many of these young people would not be able to enjoy a better quality of life."

Tuohy's genuine sympathy for disenfranchised young people, White said, separates him from those who create nonprofits with dubious or disingenuous purposes.

"He's a white fella who's concerned about all kids, whether they're pink, blue, green or yellow," White said. "If they have a need, he's there to provide it, and many of these kids wouldn't have opportunities without him."

Hang the shingle, begin the dream

If White planted the seed that led to Tuohy's career-long altruism, the late Rev. Walter Brennan nurtured it.

Tom Tuohy
Tom Tuohy, owner of Tuohy Law Offices and president and founder of Dreams for Kids, a global youth empowerment organization, talks to eighth-graders at Chicago International Charter School Bucktown about making a difference during their Dream Leaders class in March.
Photos by Natalie Battaglia.

While at DePaul, Tuohy joined the Tau Theta Epsilon fraternity, for which Brennan was a moderator. Tuohy discovered that Brennan mentored young people in the North Lawndale neighborhood, routinely distributing food, clothing and other items.

Though his fraternity raised money for Brennan, Tuohy didn't truly understand the breadth of Brennan's impact on young people until he joined him on his rounds.

Between White and Brennan, "my whole worldview changed my freshman year," Tuohy said.

In 1982, Tuohy started Thomas W. Tuohy Ltd. in the same building as Green Block & Associates. In addition to working for White, he took what legal work he could get, which he said allowed him to define his own career path instead of going the law firm route.

"That time was the absolute best," Tuohy said. "It was the liberation of leaving school, taking that big risk, being able to sustain it and knowing I could succeed. It was exhilarating."

That experience allowed Tuohy to tailor his law practice goals to mirror his philanthropic work; his focus on estate planning allows him to work on behalf of citizens who are struggling.

"It's a part of the practice where I get the opportunity to provide an important service for a family," he said. "Every single time they leave the office, they feel grateful and relieved that you took care of something important for them."

Tuohy's legal work has also been union-focused: He served as an attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police in the 1990s, creating its legal benefits plan. He still presents an estate planning seminar at Chicago Police Department headquarters every three months.

His first true foray into nonprofit work started at the suggestion of his mother, Patricia, who urged him to use his success as an attorney to pay it forward.

"She said, 'You're a lawyer … a lot of people didn't think this was gonna happen. This was your dream, now it's time for you to help others,'" he said. "It was literally the very next day I knew I was going to do something — I just didn't know what."

His mother encouraged him to gather his friends and create Dreams for Kids in 1989, though he had "no idea what to do with it." It was a chance call from a friend in the fall of that year that led him to the company of Clara Kirk, the woman who founded Clara's House in 1987.

When Tuohy spoke with Kirk on the phone at 10:30 on a weekday morning, Kirk wasted no time in testing his dedication to the cause.

"She asked me to come over right now," he said. "I said, 'Right now?' She said, 'If you don't come right now, you're not serious.'"

When Tuohy visited Kirk's shelter, he found numerous kids in a relatively small area, doubled up on beds — a sight that "was tough to see," he said. That meeting resulted in Tuohy returning, gifts in hand, that Christmas Eve.

"Clara told us, 'If you didn't show up today, these kids would've never known it was Christmas,'" he said.

One year later, Dreams for Kids returned to Clara's House with gifts, in addition to visiting another local shelter. The organization visited more shelters and connected with more children every year, until it had to rent out space and started inviting kids and their families. The event was eventually called Holiday For Hope and it now serves more than 1,500 Chicago-area youngsters every December with a day of entertainment, food and several gifts for each child.

Dreams for Kids blossomed from Tuohy and Kirk's encounter and the relationship between the two organizations "has been great every day since," Kirk said.

Tuohy continues to use his legal expertise to help Kirk, including finding ways to help her obtain funding.

"It brings tears to my eyes to think about the ways he has supported me," she said.

Not charity, but opportunity

"Replacing charity with opportunity" is Dreams for Kids' primary philosophy. It stems from the organization's early years when it was about providing food and gifts and throwing events for people that its organizers never saw again.

Tom Tuohy
Tuohy and Cortez Alexander (center), a student representative on the executive board of Dreams for Kids, listen as Jordan Doss, 14, discusses the progress his group has made planning a staff-versus-students charity basketball game. Tuohy's Dreams for Kids nonprofit, which he started in 1989, aims to help at-risk students become active citizens. Also pictured are (from left to right) students Alex Ortiz, Alejandro Vargas, Christian Martinez and Michael Carresquillo, 13.
Photos by Natalie Battaglia.

"Charity doesn't work. By definition, a handout doesn't work, but a hand-up does," Tuohy said. "Really, recipients of charity don't want indignity, they want opportunity. So we replace charity with opportunity. We give them not only the opportunity to become leaders and serve others, but to build their lives too."

Putting that philosophy into play happened when Tuohy encountered J.J. O'Connor, a boy who was paralyzed while playing hockey. He told Tuohy that there were no places for youths with disabilities like him to continue playing sports in Chicago.

Tuohy contacted O'Connor's rehab center, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, and learned that the institute was already planning to expand its adult program to include children. It partnered with Dreams for Kids in 2000 to create physical activity programs for youths with disabilities. Dreams For Kids eventually made the program independent of the RIC; its participants dubbed it "Extreme Recess."

Tuohy said the beauty of Extreme Recess is that it gives youths the opportunity not just to play sports, but to have the social interaction afforded to their able-bodied athletic counterparts.

"By the very nature of living with a disability, kids are extremely isolated from social contact," Tuohy said. "This allows them to come from the sidelines of life and do the activities of their dreams. It's a powerful experience that changes how they view themselves and gives them self-esteem and confidence."

"Every time we have an activity, there's a parent who writes a note or calls us. They can see the transformation of their child right in front of their eyes."

If Extreme Recess is the heart of Dreams for Kids, the Dream Leaders program is its backbone. Dream Leaders unites at-risk youth and youths with disabilities and works to nurture a wide range of talents, including social entrepreneurship and business skills such as IT and marketing. It is designed to create leaders out of each of its participants who will, in turn, go out and create other leaders.

The program is currently implemented in six Chicago schools, including the Chicago International Charter Schools' Bucktown and West Belden campuses and Paul Robeson High School.

"Everything flows from Dream Leaders," Tuohy said. "It's about recognizing that young people at risk have something to contribute; that they can be change agents in the world."

Each one teach one

Though Tuohy has impacted thousands of young people in almost 24 years of Dreams for Kids, Cortez Alexander is perhaps the best representation of his life's work.

The 21-year-old was born weighing 1 pound, 7 ounces as a result of his parents' drug use. After five months of hospitalization following his birth, Alexander went home to be raised by his grandmother.

When he made it to Michele Clark Academic Prep Magnet High School in Austin, his first two years were spent engaged in constant altercations in an attempt to position himself as a "stone-cold," intimidating individual, Alexander said.

"It wasn't the ideal school I'd pictured myself going to," he said. "It was different than what I'd expected … more hostile. Violence was a regular occurrence. Quite naturally, I got acclimated to the environment."

"He was fighting his way through school," Tuohy said. "He had no sense of purpose or belonging."

Alexander said it was a chance meeting with his principal before his junior year — during which the principal told Alexander that jail or expulsion were his inevitable consequences — that made him change. That summer of 2009, he discovered Dreams for Kids.

Around the same time he started working with the organization, Alexander took a sharp turn from his self-destructive path toward a renewed academic and personal focus. He became a class leader at Michele Clark before graduating in 2011 and going to DePaul University, where he made the dean's list with straight As his freshman year. An international studies major and Arabic studies minor, he will attend classes in Turkey next year as part of an exchange program.

He acknowledges that the transition from a negative statistic waiting to happen to a leader didn't exactly come naturally.

"I never pictured myself as a leader," he said. "You always hear about how people were born to be leaders, but we never hear the story about how people were trained and made to become leaders. That's the path that I took."

As a Dreams for Kids student ambassador, Alexander visits CICS Bucktown on a regular basis to implement the Dream Leaders curriculum for students who he says resemble him just a few years ago.

"The kids really take to me," he said. "I keep them on task and remind them that they can make a difference."

As one of two student representatives on the Dreams for Kids' executive board, Alexander speaks on behalf of the organization at conferences and other formal events. Despite his position within the organization, he said he's not above getting new lessons from Tuohy, such as the one he received when he arrived late to a meeting.

"One thing he's big on is accountability," Alexander said of Tuohy. "He also taught me how to fully express myself and to tell people my story."

Parental influences

The message of understanding that Tuohy espouses through Dreams for Kids motivated him to reconnect with his father in 2006, about 40 years after the man abandoned his family. Tuohy calls their meeting, in which he got to learn more about his father's motivations, a "powerful experience" that he likes to share with the kids in the program, many of whom have absentee dads.

Tuohy's father died a year after their meeting.

"The most important part of the experience is forgiveness," he said. "It's not about creating something that wasn't there or that you would like to be there. You can't recreate the past if it's not meant to be."

There's a good chance that Tuohy would never have seen any professional success at all if not for his mother's role-model influence on her youngest son.

"She sacrificed so much," he said. " She always worked two jobs and didn't drive until she was in her 40s. She worked her whole life to ensure her kids had a good life and I realized that as a young person. I had a tremendous amount of admiration for who she was."

His mother was involved in Dreams for Kids activities for "six good years" before she died in 1995. Tuohy made sure to create the Patricia Tuohy Scholarship, granted at least once a year to single parents for tuition assistance for their children, while his mother was still alive.

"That's a great lesson for everyone," he said. "Don't wait for the eulogy to honor someone."

A man with many hats

Already involved in several activities, Tuohy added "author" to his list of titles in 2006 when his book, "Dreams for Kids: Changing the World One Person at a Time," was released. The idea came about when author and marketing strategist Sam Horn heard him speak about the organization at a 2005 conference and urged him to write about his experiences.

The book, now in its third edition, tells the story of the organization and all the people he encountered that helped make it successful. Tuohy admits the emotional heft of his storytelling was not present in the book's first draft, which was written in just six months and not well-received by Horn.

"She said, 'You've got to go back to Clara's House (metaphorically). You've got to be there when you write the words. And when you do, we will be there with you when we read them,'" he said. "That great advice made it real. The storytelling is emotionally powerful, but it's only powerful when it's accurate."

Tuohy said the book helped Dreams for Kids get a foothold in at least 30 countries to date. It is single-handedly responsible for Holiday For Hope's expansion to several thousand children worldwide in countries from Ghana to India to South Africa.

The book currently has about 35,000 copies in distribution and is available for purchase on the organization's website,, and Amazon. All profits from its sales go to Dreams for Kids.

"That book tells the story for everything he's done for the kids," Kirk said.

Tuohy balances his practice and Dreams for Kids, which operates in Chicago and Washington, D.C, from his North Michigan Avenue office. He keeps two different business cards for each and puts in long hours to manage them both.

He wouldn't have it any other way.

"When you do the work that I do, you can be fluid and flexible in a way you need to be," he said. "It's different every day, but I like that. It all has great, great rewards."

Tuohy's current project is the Catalyst Center, a project designed to transform the closing Chicago public schools into buildings for nonprofit community services. The centers would house programs ranging from conflict resolution and teen-pregnancy education to job training and activities for senior citizens.

He came up with the idea recently after walking with Kirk in Englewood and passing by schools that have been slated for closure at the end of this school year.

"I got that feeling of isolation and hopelessness that exists within that community," he said. "I think the Catalyst Center could be a beacon of hope where everything begins again."

The project has corporate support as well as support from the Chicago Police Department and more than 20 nonprofits. He has orchestrated the preparation of a comprehensive business plan for CPS and the city; Tuohy said he is encouraged by the progress and positive response.

Because many of the closing schools are in socioeconomically struggling neighborhoods, he hopes that the Catalyst Center programs would serve as hubs of urban renewal in those areas.

"With all this stuff in one building, you could really change these communities from within and spread out," he said.

Tuohy remains very humble about the ever-growing organization he founded. He insists that "the heart of the story is not me."

But even if he doesn't rest on his own laurels, the many people whose lives he has changed for the better will continue to do it for him.

"I don't think there's a greater lawyer than him," Kirk said. "He's not in it for the money — he's in it to help children who can't help themselves."

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