The ICOY Board of Directors Welcomes Renee Lehocky and Carolyn Wahlskog
ICOY is proud to welcome Renee Lehocky, Director of Strategic Initiatives at Lawrence Hall, and Carolyn Wahlskog, Director of Operations and Programming at Youth Outlook, to the ICOY Board of Directors. Both Carolyn and Renee bring valuable perspectives and a wealth of experience in the youth service field to the Board.
Renee Lehocky, LCSW (she/her) joined the Lawrence Hall team in 2015 and has over 30 years of experience in child welfare in the Chicago area. In the early years of her career, she worked as a case manager in both independent living and foster care programs. She recruited, licensed, and trained foster parents. Twenty-six years of her career has been in leadership roles. Renee is a founding member of the Illinois LGBTQ+ Roundtable advocating for LGBTQ+ youth in care to promote safe and affirming environments. Renee grew up on the South Side of Chicago and currently lives in Humboldt Park with her wife and cat named Cortez. She loves to travel and has visited all 50 states and 32 countries across 5 continents.
Carolyn Wahlskog, LCSW (she/they) has spent her career supporting LGBTQ+ young people across Illinois. Carolyn oversees Youth Outlook’s drop-in centers and provides professional development to schools, mental health providers and other youth workers on providing safe and affirming policies and practices with LGBTQ+ youth, families and communities. Additionally, Carolyn co-coordinates Transformative Justice Law Project’s Name Change Mobilization, assisting trans and non-binary people across Illinois access legal name and gender marker changes. Previously, she served as the Executive Director of Housing at 360 Youth Services and started their LGBTQ+ transitional housing program.
As ICOY continues to actively bring new voices to the decision-making table, what does this mean to you and how does having you both on the Board have the potential to grow ICOY’s equitable lens in the future?
Renee: Working in the child welfare system has been challenging knowing the harm that is caused when we fail to affirm our LGBTQ+ children and youth. Nationally and locally, it is estimated that 30% of children and youth identify as LGBTQ+ in child welfare. Often, they’re invisible, lack LGBTQ+ role models, affirming placements, and find it safer to leave the system early, unprepared to live life as their true selves. We know that almost half of Chicago’s young homeless LGBTQ+ youth have had a relationship with child welfare. Hoping that my professional and lived experience will be an asset to ICOY’s members to focus on the overrepresentation of the LGBTQ+ community in child welfare.
Carolyn: My life’s work so far has been to bring the LGBTQ+ lens to the work that I do whether it’s child welfare, housing, mental health or legal systems. LGBTQ+ young people are often disproportionately represented in our child welfare and juvenile justice system and have worse outcomes in those systems. I hope to bring my experience and collaborate with other providers to change that narrative and to see LGBTQ+ young people thrive.
What about ICOY excites you both the most?
Renee: I’ve always have been impressed with ICOY’s advocacy work across the state. I’ve been a member of the ICOY’s Policy Advisory Committee since joining Lawrence Hall. It excites me to join a Board of dedicated professionals across the state of Illinois. Since joining the Board, it’s been great to learn about the array of services that ICOY offers its members. I look forward to learning more and working together with the Board and members to support ICOY’s mission.
Carolyn: As a member of ICOY for many years, I’ve interacted with just a portion of what ICOY has to offer. It’s been exciting to learn about the full scope of what ICOY offers and I look forward to learning more about the research projects and bringing that research to practice.
Can you both talk a bit about your organizations? What are some high-level programs, services, and locations that you can share for other members to know about your organization?
Renee: Lawrence Hall is one of Chicago’s oldest social service organizations. We were founded just after the American Civil War to care for the many orphaned children struggling to survive. We serve children, youth and communities through 7 core programs. Residential Treatment, Therapeutic Day School, Foster Care, Transitional/Independent Living Program, Creative Therapies, Workforce Development and Community Wellness. Lawrence Hall has offices or residential sites in several neighborhoods that include Albany Park, Lincoln Square, Auburn Gresham, South Shore, Rogers Park and Englewood. Lawrence Hall has received the Innovator Tier from the Human Rights Campaign for our work with LGBTQ + children and youth. This year we opened a LGBTQ+ residential site that serves youth in home setting. Our home is unique as we actively recruit employees who identify as LGBTQ+. Lawrence Hall is committed to hiring at least 50% of employees identifying from the LGBTQ+ Community.
Carolyn: Youth Outlook provides safe space for LGBTQ+ young people to connect with one another, build community and reduce isolation. Our main programming is providing Drop-In Centers for LGBTQ+ youth, ages 12-20, in person and online. Our in-person locations include Naperville, Downers Grove, Elmhurst, Palatine, DeKalb, Sterling, Ottawa, Joliet and Peoria. Additionally, we have a group for K-6th grade called Rainbow Sprouts, a group for young adults and parents. Outside of our youth facing work, we provide community education and professional development across the state to expand the capacity of providers to create safe and affirming spaces for LGBTQ+ youth and families.
How long have you each been in your current roles?
Renee: I’ve been in my current role as Director of Strategic Initiatives at Lawrence Hall since June of 2015.
Carolyn: I actually did my MSW social work internship with Youth Outlook back in 2011 and returned to the organization in this current role in 2021.
Can you share a little more about your background? What brings you to this work?
Renee: I’ve known from a young age that I would be in the helping field. I began my career as a direct care worker in an Independent Living Program. Most of my career has been working with youth in direct care and administrative roles. Having lived experience as a queer person led me to be a strong advocate for LGBTQ+ youth in care.
Carolyn: I’m drawn to this work because my values are very rooted in building community. As a queer person who did not see myself reflected in the adults in my life growing up, it’s meant a lot to me to work in the community where I grew up and make it a space where LGBTQ+ young people can see themselves reflected in curriculum, in the adults in their life and throughout their community. As I mentioned, I did my initial social work internship at Youth Outlook, so my passion has always been LGBTQ+ young people. After I graduated from UIC, I started at the girl’s transitional housing program at 360 Youth Services. I didn’t necessarily know I’d go into housing work, but it chose me. Through building our LGBTQ+ transitional housing program and getting more involved with youth experiencing homelessness and then youth in the child welfare system, I became frustrated at systems that always seemed to leave some young people and families behind. I’ve been lucky to be a part of several networks including the Illinois LGBTQ+ Roundtable, working to improve the experiences of LGBTQ+ youth in care. My hope in engaging in these networks is that we can build relationships across agencies and across systems so young people and families have the tools they need to stay in community and not experience such high rates of homelessness and negative mental health outcomes