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Wings’ Board Chair Rita Canning seeks to break the circle of violence


Rita Canning

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Updated: January 10, 2014 6:04AM

I’m often asked why I’ve dedicated this chapter of my life to helping abused women build a secure life for themselves and their children. Sometimes I think people assume I’ll answer with, “I was a victim of domestic violence” or “I was personally involved with that issue.” But the fact of the matter is that neither one of those statements are true. I grew up in Maywood, a western suburb near Chicago. My parents loved each other and nurtured my two brothers and me, and I am happily married to my husband, John.

In the early ’90s, however, I found myself feathering an empty nest. With no grand plan, I started to look for a way to use my spare time as a volunteer. I visited domestic violence shelters in far north and northwest suburbs, and I soon learned that each shelter turned away 200 women a month. I realized there was a need for a shelter in my area.

In the mid-’90s, I joined the board of WINGS (Women in Need Growing Stronger), which then provided transitional housing, and began my campaign to build a safe house. It took three years to find the right property that was acceptable for zoning requirements. During this search, I learned the power of the statement, “This is a worthy idea, but not in my backyard.” I remain grateful to the leadership and encouragement of then-Ald. Tom Rooney, who is now mayor of Rolling Meadows.

In 1999, I was fortunate to meet Rebecca Darr, who was returning to her native Illinois. In San Jose, Calif., she was director of a school for abused children and earned a master’s degree in clinical psychology. Rebecca was hired as executive director of WINGS, and in 2003, we finally secured approval to begin construction of WINGS’ safe house.

My passion and her proven expertise made it possible to augment and accelerate WINGS’ growth. Together during the last 14 years, we built the first safe house in the northwest suburbs. We tripled WINGS’ services and programs, secured a variety of private apartments and homes so families could prepare for their independence. And this year, we accepted the invitation of Mayor Rahm Emmanuel to lead the plans for building the first new domestic violence shelter to open in the city of Chicago since the early days of this millennium.

We find strength in the courage of the women we serve. Five years ago, a woman and her three children — who were 4, 2 and less than 1 year old — shared a story about her tipping point. The woman said that one day, she’d told her 4-year-old son that he couldn’t have his way, and he told told his father to hit his mother because she was being bad. The woman explained that while she could take on the horrible things her then-husband did to her, she could not tolerate that she was allowing her young son to begin the cycle of violence. Today, after graduating from the WINGS program, she is happily remarried. The successes and challenges of WINGS’ women like these inspire and motivate me. Indeed, they are “women in need growing stronger.”

This past weekend, WINGS celebrated its 10-year anniversary at our annual benefit event, Sweet Home Chicago. The event raised significant funds thanks to our loyal corporate and individual donors, but we still need your help. Please help us fortify their fight and support Chicago’s women and children in need.

To support WINGS, visit or send a donation to WINGS, Box 95615, Palatine, IL 60095. The Sun-Times Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust will match donations to WINGS, up to a total of $50,000. Up to $1,000 can be matched per individual donation.

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