COVID-19 Regional Response Fund Grantee Spotlight: Join Hands East St. Louis

UNBUNTU: A South African term used to describe a sense of humanity toward others, meaning “I am because WE are.” 

The concept of unbunbtu is foundational to Join Hands East St. Louis, a nonprofit that believes every child deserves to reach their fullest potential, regardless of the adversities they may face. Young people thrive when they have caring, affirming relationships, access to quality education and diverse life experiences. Through building positive relationships with the East St. Louis Community and providing families and children with care and compassion, Join Hands ESL works to empower mobility from poverty.

Similar to so many community-based organizations, Join Hands ESL was strained by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, to say the least. At the beginning, they partnered with other organizations to canvass communities most in danger of contracting the virus, to educate them. They held food drives and distributed food to the community. They shifted their teen center to a remote learning center. “We’ve had success for over 30 years, because we learn how to meet the needs of the community,” says Sheila Burton, Executive Director. “Our mindset is that we can overcome whatever the issue is.”

And the big issue earlier this year was funding to continue to meet the overwhelming community needs that just kept growing. “When we received the Regional Response Grant from the St. Louis Community Foundation, it came quickly at a time when considerations were being made on how to keep the organization afloat,” says Sheila.

One of the teens in the Join Hands ESL mentoring program was accepted to Spelman College, a historically Black college for women in Atlanta. Join Hand ESL mobilized friends and funds and raised $32,000 to start a new college fund for the student. “We did this during a time when people lost their jobs, through the entire COVID experience,” says Sheila. “But this child got into Spelman, and we are going to make sure that she takes advantage of that opportunity.”

“We are choosing to look at the silver lining of COVID,” says Sheila. “It’s brought us together in new ways. More than 75% of our staff lives in the communities we serve, they are neighbors, family and friends. And when you see that your neighbor has funds and what they need to get by in a time like this, that is very meaningful.”

To learn more about Join Hands East St. Louis, visit their website at and learn more about the COVID-19 Regional Response Fund at