Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

Laura Vazquez
Laura Vazquez

Becca Berry
Becca Berry

Diane Nilan
Diane Nilan

To obtain print-quality JPEGs, contact the Office of Public Affairs at (815) 753-1681 or e-mail

Hear Us fundraiser

  • What: A benefit dinner and silent auction

  • When: 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 24

  • Where: Meson Sabika Tapas Bar, 1025 Aurora Ave., Naperville

  • Proceeds: Will benefit the Hear Us Video Project: “Heard and Seen.”

  • Donation: $100 per person.

  • RSVP: By Oct. 1 to or (630) 225-5012.

  • Web site:

News Release

Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-3635

September 19, 2006

NIU professor, student hope to help
raise voice of homeless children, teens

DeKalb, Ill. — Northern Illinois University Communication Professor Laura Vazquez and one of her star students, senior Becca Berry, are joining forces with a well known advocate for the homeless in an effort to raise the voice of homeless children nationwide.

Vazquez is producing educational training videos for Diane Nilan, a former Aurora shelter director who led efforts to pass state and later federal legislation protecting the rights of homeless children in public schools.

Last year, Nilan sold her home, took out a mortgage on an RV and embarked on an eight-month, cross-country odyssey, logging more than 20,000 miles in eight months. Along the way, she videotaped interviews with homeless children, teens and their parents in places not typically associated with homelessness—small towns, rural areas and affluent mid-sized cities.

Berry will compile and organize the footage to create brief training videos that will help educators and others nationwide become aware of and more sensitive to challenges facing homeless students. A video trailer on the project, titled “Heard and Seen,” will debut at a benefit dinner next month in Naperville (information at right).

Vazquez is supervising Berry’s work, which is part of an independent study for the 21-year-old media studies major from Kenosha, Wis. Vazquez has already applied for grant funds and a sabbatical next year to work with Nilan on a documentary about homeless students.

“I’ve seen the videotaped interviews collected by Diane, and I think the project has a lot of potential,” said Vazquez, an accomplished video-documentary maker. “Whether it’s a single documentary or multiple pieces will depend on the threads of the narrative. There’s more work to be done, including more interviews that are needed to provide context.”

For Vazquez and Berry, the project is a dramatic departure from their work this past summer. Vazquez took Berry and five other students to California, where they worked for six weeks on a film directed by and starring Anthony Hopkins.

“It definitely is a contrast,” said Berry, an aspiring film producer. “What we did over the summer, working on a movie set, was like being part of a big orchestra. This is much more focused.”

Berry has done volunteer work with homeless people and traveled last spring to Louisiana to aid Hurricane Katrina victims. She said the subject matter drew her to the “Heard and Seen” project. “It breaks your heart to see some of these kids telling their stories,” Berry said. “I hope I can help in some small way.”

In 2005, Nilan founded the non-profit Hear Us (, a Naperville-based organization that aims to raise awareness about homelessness. During her cross-country journey, she met students displaced from their homes by hurricanes and other natural disasters, teens who lived with their families in cars, motels and camp grounds and families who were torn apart by methamphetamine, a growing problem in rural areas.

“I was saddened to see the extent of poverty and homelessness in rural communities and resort towns,” Nilan said. “And I was absolutely flabbergasted at the pathetic condition of the housing stock in rural parts of the country.”

In tourist areas, she said, it wasn’t uncommon to see moms who had lost their mates dealing with homelessness, the problem exacerbated by skyrocketing housing costs.

“Seeing the level of homelessness in places like Las Vegas and Reno just shocked me,” she added. “They have so much money going through the state, yet they don’t have any homeless shelters. In Las Vegas, one elementary school had over 200 kids who were homeless, living in motels. The government-funded housing in these communities has pretty much evaporated.”

Nilan originally conceived the idea for the video project while working on a federally funded project to ensure the rights of homeless schoolchildren in Chicago’s collar counties.

“When I was training educators, I used a video from California that had homeless kids talking about their experiences. The video was too long and it was all California. Still, it was the only tool like that out there, so I ended up getting a videotape machine and doing brutal editing.”

Under the McKinney-Vento Act—legislation that Nilan championed—school districts nationwide are required to designate a liaison to assist homeless youth and their families with school enrollment, transportation and other issues surrounding education. More awareness is needed, however.

“There are some districts that are extraordinarily good, and there are others that are unenlightened,” Nilan said. “Then there are those that need to stay after school and have a detention.”

The initial batch of training videos will debut in November in Arkansas during the annual conference of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.