Growing up in the former Yugoslavia in the 1980s and ’90s, Elma Milanovic was always drawn to the arts. “I loved sketching, I loved dance and music. I always had a feel for design, interiors, fashion,” she says. But art was the last thing on her mind in August, 1995, when she and her mother Azra Hrncic arrived in the United States as Bosnian refugees.
“It was survival mode,” Milanovic recalls. The urgency to secure housing, enroll in school, find a job, and navigate Chicago were immense and time-sensitive pressures. “We got here at the end of August. I got my job the third day here and started high school the next week.”
Navigating a new country, city, and culture can be overwhelming, but thankfully, says Milanovic, Chicago and the surrounding region are supported by many organizations that assist refugees with these exact challenges. Milanovic credits this network with helping her mother and her with all the many necessities—transportation, food, used furniture, clothing, and so forth. “We were really fortunate to have strong community support that provided us the ability to establish ourselves, to assimilate a little bit easier.”
Much of that support came from JCFS Chicago (formerly Jewish Child and Family Services). Established over 160 years ago, JCFS carries out its mission through its myriad programs and services “to provide help, healing, and caring services infused with Jewish values to strengthen lives in our community.” One such program, HIAS (initially known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) was a major source of assistance.
Within a few years of arriving in Chicago, Hrncic became a caseworker for HIAS, assisting many other refugees from the region of former Yugoslavia arriving in Chicago between 1995 and 2000 while Milanovic, guided by her mentors at HIAS, JCFS, and her high school, found her way to the University of Illinois Chicago’s architecture program. In 2002, a mere seven years after first arriving in the United States, Milanovic was awarded a bachelor of architectural studies degree and started her career in architecture and design in Chicago.
JCFS Chicago remained a peripheral part of her life as she embarked on her design career, but it wasn’t until 2018 that the organization once again came into focus. Milanovic, by now an established architectural designer with the global architecture, planning, and design firm Perkins Eastman, happened upon a Request For Proposal (RFP) on a colleague’s desk while stopping by for a chat. It was from FacCorp (the company that owns and manages JCFS Chicago and other organizations’ properties) and JCFS Chicago.
“I said, ‘Wait, is this the JCFS out in Skokie?’ And my co-worker said, ‘Yes, what do you know about them?’” Milanovic shared her backstory, noting her admiration for all JCFS had done for her and her mother. “It would be an honor to help this organization design its facilities because they do such wonderful work for the community,” she recalls saying in the conversation. Then she began to strategize.
“I went straight home to my mother and asked her if she still knew people at JCFS that I could reach out to,” Milanovic says. Armed with its broad expertise, deep portfolio of work, and guided by Milanovic’s knowledge and devotion to JCFS’ mission, Perkins Eastman made it to the interview stage in the selection process. “I used my story because I felt it added that extra personal touch – and we ended up winning the project,” Milanovic says.
The project—planning and design for the renovation of JCFS’ existing building in Skokie and identifying and designing additional program space—became Milanovic’s to manage. Nearly twenty-five years later, JCFS and its programs had once again become central to her life.
Assessing Needs, Budget
JCFS Chicago’s offices at the Goldie Bachmann Luftig Building have been at 5150 Golf Road in Skokie, IL, for more than fifteen years. The two-story building was in good shape and in an excellent location. Still, recent and accelerating growth of JCFS Chicago’s programming and outreach had made change necessary. In planning for the renovation and expansion, JCFS identified three key challenges that needed to be addressed:
1. A dated building that was no longer functional because the organization had changed so much
2. Inadequate parking
3. Need for additional space to accommodate expanding programs
Making the spaces aesthetically appealing, functional, and adaptable to change were imperatives, but JCFS’ leadership and board were also cognizant of the need to be responsible stewards of the money that would make the project possible—not a cent could go to waste. FacCorp and JCFS’ staff and board were further buoyed by their decision to select Perkins Eastman. “We felt that Perkins Eastman and Elma best understood how we wanted to invest the money—it wasn’t ‘the sky is the limit.’” says Stacey Shor, President and Chief Executive Officer of JCFS Chicago.
Once awarded the project, Milanovic and the Perkins Eastman team quickly got to work. “We created a wish list and balanced that against what they thought they could fundraise,” says Milanovic.