5, 6, 7, 8: social worker by day, dancer by night


Photo by Jeff Anderson

WCCHS social worker Jeff Anderson with his parents on graduation day.

By Brittany Saenz, Reporter

Talk to Jeff Anderson about his childhood and his face brightens. One of his strongest memories involves climbing mango trees, picking the fruit with his brother. These were special moments he shared with his sibling while living in the Philippines for two years. 

Although he lived abroad briefly as a child, Anderson otherwise describes the block he grew up on as “a back in the day experience.” Kids gathered in the streets during the summer, playing sports all day, or sometimes having a “pool day” at a friend’s home. During the night, they would play “flashlight tag” and the kids would hide all around the neighborhood, trying not to get caught by the person searching with the flashlight.

Anderson describes his childhood as “a blast.” 

“My parents weren’t perfect, but they loved me. Their marriage wasn’t perfect, but they stuck together. And my brothers weren’t perfect, but they are pretty darn close,” said Anderson. His relationship with his family has taken work over the years to make it healthy and a strong place but he says, “it’s certainly worth it”. 

Even now, his mother takes care of his grandfather a few days over the course of a week. Anderson enjoys the strong friendship he has developed with his dad, whom he visits once a week. 

Anderson is the second out of four children, and has three brothers, all of whom he is close with. Anderson and his older brother love to hike mountains together – experiences that are filled with great conversations and memories made together while traveling internationally.

The third sibling, who lives locally, is calm, funny and musical. Anderson said, “We enjoy sitting around and talking”. 

Anderson tried convincing his youngest brother to become a social worker as well, but was unsuccessful. Nonetheless, now they talk on the phone once every two weeks. 

Some of Anderson’s coworkers: Janet Hurtado, Lindsey Maxson, Dave Pater, and Anderson.

Anderson has been a social worker at West Chicago Community High School for 9 years. Originally, his goal was to be able to make more money than what he was making as a teacher. He had the mindset that if he had a family someday, and wanted to provide for “small people”, he had to complete more schooling to open doors career-wise. 

We revisited his experiences in the ESL world and education when I sat down with him on a  Tuesday afternoon in his office, a small room with a single window. He had just finished lunch, and his Tupperware remained on his desk while Anderson played with a basketball and spoke about working at Franklin Middle School in Wheaton, Easter Seals Therapeutic Day School in Chicago, and Evanston Township High School in Evanston. 

 There, Anderson was hired as a teacher’s assistant, and taught ESL classes in the evening. While working at the high school, he found himself getting to know the students pretty closely: he knew the tough situations they faced in their lives and their family, but often instead of being able to find ways to help, Anderson had to switch right into going back to teacher-mode and academics. The experience made him think about what he saw himself doing, but it was not until he – randomly – started reading a counseling  textbook he could not put down, that Anderson started to think of studying to be a social worker. 

Anderson uses the words “calm, caring and idealistic” to describe himself. 

Social worker Janet Hurtado said Anderson has a “calming presence. He is kind and generous and always willing to help those around him. He doesn’t judge and is a great listener.”

English teacher Kyle Etheridge said Anderson lives his life as a “free spirit”. 

“He performs a job many would not be able to handle or compartmentalize. I can tell you from firsthand experience that he can have a difficult day at work, come home, grab a green pepper from the fridge, and then go for a walk to find a good tree to climb. He finds joy in the majesty of our world,” said Etheridge. 

Teacher Kyle Etheridge and Anderson visit Starved Rock State Park during their time as roommates.
Etheridge remembers one of their traditions was eating Cane’s while watching Brooklyn Nine Nine.

Having grown up in the area, Anderson was aware of West Chicago Community High School. He attended and played soccer for Wheaton North High School, and of course, West Chicago was one of his opponents. He recalls thinking, “Holy cow. They all speak Spanish.”

Anderson also attended WEGO’s prom his junior year, and now, as a staff member, he realizes he knew a lot of people who attended or worked at West Chicago Community High School. He was able to think of five during our conversation, and thought of WEGO as if he was “coming home”. 

Hurtado started the job at the same time as Anderson. Today, Anderson maintains a good friendship with her, describing the two of them as “besties.” 

He has helped Hurtado stay grounded, she said. Hurtado enjoys being able to work with Anderson because “it’s been really great to be able to bounce ideas off of him and process different situations with him.” 

Anderson is not only a social worker, but also the sponsor for the Latin-style dance group Alegria. In his words, he started taking high-priced, low-quality dance classes a little after becoming a social worker. Eventually, he found Luis Arturo Dance, which offered better prices, good instruction, and genuine care for their dancers. 

Six months into his sessions, Anderson was having tacos with Luis Arturo and his now-wife, and asked, “Hey, would you ever want to teach high schoolers to dance for free?” 

Now, Anderson did not think Arturo would agree, but the dance instructor had actually been thinking about the idea already. So, the pair asked a few students whom they thought would be interested, and with their willingness and the help of Hortado, the paperwork was submitted. 

The goal for the group, as Hurtado said, was to provide “a place for students to feel safe and have fun, a place where they could connect with fellow dance enthusiasts.” 

Within a month of Anderson’s conversation with Arturo, Alegria was an official group at West Chicago Community High School. By the second meeting, they had over 40 students all gathered, and the club continues to gain popularity. 

The original Alegria group, formed after Anderson’s conversation with Luis Arturo.

“Try to imagine what life would be like without Alegria,” said Anderson, who not only teaches students how to dance, but also enjoys seeing how each one grows as a person and connects with others in the organization. 

He is very proud of the “family” dancing has created. 

Even though Hurtado is no longer able to stay in Alegria, due to family responsibilities, she is happy Anderson has continued. She said, “It is a place where our students have been able to find a new family and new support system, while having a ton of fun.” 

Members of Alegria first joined to be able to learn how to dance, but as time went by, this group became family to them, thanks to Anderson’s efforts. 

“I thought it was just gonna be a one-time thing, but then I made friends, and friends become family, and just seeing how they bond made me wanna join, and it became a safe place,” said sophomore Zitlalic Lazaro, member of Alegria and leaders group. 

Another member, senior Cristina Espino said, “Being a member of the group is like being a part of a family. Alegria has been my happy place and where I’ve made some of my best high school memories. I will always be thankful for being part of an amazing group.” 

Outside of school, Anderson still keeps moving. He dedicates himself to a lot of non-profit work, fundraising for anti-human trafficking organizations, and is also very involved with two churches, one in Geneva and the other in Aurora. Anderson can also be found visiting family on weekday afternoons or on the weekends, often catching up with his brother, sister-in-laws, and some nieces and nephews in the area. 

Travel is one thing Anderson is passionate about: he has traveled to Europe 4 times in the last 6 years and is hoping to vacation this summer. Without a doubt, Anderson said Spain is his favorite place. While he grew up in a “white cultured” area, Anderson has felt drawn towards Latin, and particularly Mexican, culture over the years. 

When it comes to his love of Spain, Anderson said being “familiar with Latino culture but I’m also comfortable in American culture, and you can put those things together, [making] Spain an amazing place for you.” 

Due to his travel schedule, Anderson does not have any pets, or even thoughts of getting one right now. “I’ve chosen freedom,” said Anderson. 

But, once he has a family and house, a dog might be tacked on as well. 

“I haven’t owned that dog because I’m always traveling. [In five years], I can see myself not traveling as much, now owning the dog, now owning that house, maybe having a little kid running around,” said Anderson, his face brightening at the thought of having a mini Anderson running around. 

Anderson has lived his life the best he could, but one of the hardest obstacles to overcome was, “really believing that I’m loved and wanted.” His biggest fear is that his pride and selfishness will not let him love people the way they deserve to be loved. 

The same principles guide the advice he gives as a social worker. At one point, there was a student in high school, and many people were concerned she was going to drop out, but she let them in to see how much possibilities and potential she had.