Steeped in Irish Tradition, Mercy Home Marches Forward

Steeped in Irish Tradition, Mercy Home Marches Forward

The identity of Mercy Home for Boys & Girls – much like Chicago – is anchored in a proud Irish heritage. This cultural thread, steeped in history, weaves together not only our organization’s past and present, but our city’s as well.

Chicago’s exponential growth in the mid-19th Century – from a frontier town to an urban metropolis – owes a great deal to immigrants and laborers from The Emerald Isle who dug canals, built the railroads, and worked in the city’s stockyards.

As these industries boomed, droves of wayward youth – predominately young boys – arrived in Chicago looking for work, only to wind up homeless and destitute on the dangerous streets. Enter Chicago Archbishop Patrick Feehan, a native of Tipperary, Ireland, who gathered a group of priests in 1887 to find a solution to the growing crisis of homeless boys.

As a result, the Rev. Dennis Mahoney, an Irish-American priest, outlined a plan for a boys home. Feehan quickly endorsed the plan and assigned Father Louis Campbell, also an Irish-American priest, to run it. Later that year, the facility was incorporated as a distinct organization within the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago and renamed the Mission of Our Lady of Mercy.

Our Irish roots run deep. From Mercy Home’s founding fathers to the succession of priests who have assumed leadership, including our current President and CEO Father Scott Donahue, each one has been of Irish or Irish-American decent.

Every March, the fabric of this Irish tradition unfolds with great pageantry, as Mercy Home and Chicago celebrate St. Patrick’s Day all month long. Among the downtown and city-wide festivities – be it the Chicago St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the South Side Irish Parade, or along the banks of the Chicago River as it’s dyed green – a familiar presence has made a name for itself for over two decades: Mercy Home’s March for Kids.

Held under various names since 1996, Mercy Home’s March for Kids is a great way for Chicagoans to celebrate Irish heritage while shaking off their winter cobwebs and cabin fever. But more importantly, it’s an interactive campaign to raise funds and awareness that benefit kids who have experienced abuse and neglect and now live at Mercy Home. These donations are critical to providing round-the-clock care for our kids, as Mercy Home is 100 percent privately funded.

For years, starting in the mid-1990’s, Mercy Home hosted “A Touch of Green,” a family-oriented party held at a downtown hotel after the St. Patrick’s Day parades around the city. Featuring music, food, and games, these lively events helped amplify our mission as ticket sales generated revenue for the care of our kids.

In 2004, the “A Touch of Green” party changed its name to “Shamrocks for Kids” to coincide with a revamped campaign strategy. That March, Mercy Home’s presence around Chicago expanded, thanks to an increase in corporate sponsorships, viral marketing, and media spots and advertising that included billboards, street banners, and TV and radio PSA’s with the campaign’s first celebrity endorsers, actors Martin Sheen and Dennis Farina. This strategy helped bring Mercy Home’s mission to regional and national audiences, while still engaging our Chicago base, especially at street level, thanks to volunteers in green vests who sold shamrock pins for $1 along major parade routes and around downtown before and after St. Patrick’s Day.

Farina, a former Chicago policeman who recalled bringing children to Mercy Home, took a more active roll in the 2005 Shamrocks for Kids campaign. That year, Farina, known for his roles in crime dramas, helped create a variety of radio spots and interviews while drumming up media attention with his star power.

As the profile of Shamrocks for Kids and Mercy Home continued to grow across Chicagoland, more people and community groups signed up to serve as volunteers on “tag days,” where individuals collect donations and pass out shamrocks, often in Chicago’s Loop. Many school and university groups, fraternal organizations, and corporations took advantage of these team-building opportunities to boost camaraderie and complete service projects for a good cause.

To this day, tag days or “canning” days continue to be popular among companies, whose employees view them as charitable days for coworkers to bond while getting out of the office. Today, our partners in the business community, such as law firm Johnson & Bell, staffing agency Robert Half, and insurance agency Lockton, exemplify the mission of Mercy Home’s March for Kids and help foster the engaging spirit of tag days.

Riding the publicity wave of Shamrocks for Kids in the mid-2000’s, local restaurants, bars, and other institutions jumped on board by allowing Mercy Home to place donation cans in their businesses, so patrons could contribute to the spirit of giving. Restaurants even started offering signature drink specials, with proceeds going to support our campaign. This tradition continues today, led by restaurants like RPM Italian and RPM Steak, Monteverde, Theater on the Lake, Lula Café, Piccolo Sogno, and Nonnina.

As coworkers, friends, and organizations pitched in on the periphery, Mercy Home continued its tradition of marching front and center in the annual Chicago St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Every year, Father Scott Donahue marches at the head our contingent, typically accompanied by Mercy Home board chairs, followed by coworkers and friends. In 2012, Father Scott was named Parade Honoree, as he marched alongside fellow honorees and local politicians. Girls from Mercy Home’s Walsh Campus, along with many other friends, tend to ride on our float and march in the South Side Irish Parade in the Beverly neighborhood, site of our girls home.

In 2014, Shamrocks for Kids rebranded to “March for Kids” to better reflect where Mercy Home was putting its energy. Rather than center our St. Patrick’s Day festivities around a party, we refocused our attention to a more issue-based advocacy route, fortified by a robust web campaign.

This switch also marked the first year Mercy Home dedicated the entire month of March to March for Kids. The city made this a true month-long celebration when Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel declared March to be “Mercy Home for Boys & Girls March for Kids Month in Chicago.” The following year, the mayor’s office made the same declaration.

Despite doing away with the Shamrocks for Kids party, the campaign continues to be associated with festivities. Every year, Mercy Home’s Associates Board, made up of young professionals, officially kicks off Mercy Home’s March for Kids with a party and fundraiser at the beginning of the month.

Throughout its many incarnations, Mercy Home’s March for Kids’ core mission remains the same: to help raise funds and awareness for abused and neglected children, so Mercy Home can provide them the safety, healing, and opportunity they deserve.

Rallying our community together for a charitable cause while celebrating our Irish heritage is the hallmark of Mercy Home’s March for Kids. Local media, business partnerships, and volunteers in green vests collecting donations all help Mercy Home put a profound stamp on Chicago during the month of March and St. Patrick’s Day festivities. Best of all, this caliber of fundraising and awareness helps sustain our boys and girls throughout the year, long after the parades have ended.

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