Elmhurst College is nestled in Illinois' wealthiest county - 19 DuPage County communities have household incomes averaging over $100,000 - yet one of the first lessons new students are taught is the plight of the area's poor.
More than 500 Elmhurst students recently took part in a unique freshman orientation where they're introduced to the college's Poverty Project, a mission the church-based, liberal arts school undertook last year to raise awareness about poverty - both locally and around the globe.
The students spent five days pondering questions like "What will you stand for?" "Who are your heroes in social justice?" and packed more than 119,000 meals for Feed My Starving Children, a nonprofit group with locations in Schaumburg and Aurora.
College officials say they're not trying to be a social service organization, but rather, to instill good ethical values and educate students about what's going on around them.
Elmhurst College President S. Alan Ray said engaging the students with the real world enhances their formal education.
"One male nursing student said he thought when people lived in poverty, it was their own fault. They weren't working hard or trying to get out of their situation," Ray said. "When he went out and met people, he changed his mind about that. He now knows that sometimes people get trapped in it."
Even, increasingly, in the suburbs.
The state recently announced a record 1.6 million people are on food stamps. Unemployment in Illinois remains at about 10 percent, and 14.4 percent of the population in suburban Cook and Kane counties - literally tens of thousands of people - are now classified as low income.
In order to survive, a family of three in Lake County must earn $58,000 a year, according to the Heartland Alliance's 2010 Report on Illinois Poverty. One out of every 10 Lake County families doesn't earn that much. And that's not even the most expensive suburban county to live in.
"These aren't your parents' suburbs," Professor Robert Gleeson, from Northern Illinois University's Center for Governmental Studies, told an audience during one of the Poverty Project panel discussions.
While the recession contributes to the problem, there's a bigger, more long-term reason why more suburban residents are financially struggling, says Amy Terpstra, the associate director of Heartland Alliance's Social IMPACT Research Center.
Terpstra says the suburbs have seen an increase in low-paying service jobs and a decrease in good-paying, family-supporting jobs.
While the percentage of poor people in the city of Chicago has held relatively steady since 1980, the poor population in the suburbs has tripled in some areas.
"Forty-four percent of the region's poor live in the suburbs," Terpstra said. "And there are really unique challenges with being poor in the suburbs. Transportation and services are more challenging to find."
While some people might assume the majority of the poor are immigrants, Terpstra noted that the immigrant poverty rate is only sixth-tenths of a percentage point higher than nonimmigrants - 12.7 percent and 12.1 percent, respectively.
Regardless of who the poor are or where in the world they live, Elmhurst College students have used the Poverty Project to think, talk or act on the issue. Among the project's many arms are classroom lectures, photo exhibits and a student-run Global Poverty Club that does outreach work and fundraising.
"There's just a huge interest and energy around (the Poverty Project)," said Laura Wilmarth Tyna, director of leadership, service and engagement. "We're teaching them how to get involved in their community."
Dean of Students Eileen Sullivan said the college hopes the project leads students to reflect on what kind of people they are and the kind of world they want to live in. Doing so will help them both personally and professionally, she said.
"Higher education's goal should be to churn out people with good ethical values. This all is the first step in getting that outcome," Sullivan said.
Elmhurst College isn't alone in its outreach efforts to those struggling financially. Dozens of local groups work to help the growing number of suburban poor. The Humanitarian Service Project in Carol Stream, for example, provides financially strapped families with food.
"It's very good for me. It helps me a lot because my husband is sick and we need help," said Tahany Sherbiny, a mother of three from Addison who relies on the project.
Krystal Brown, a mother of three from Carol Stream, says it's great to have access to things like fresh vegetables.
"It helps out a lot, and whatever I can't use, I pass on to some of my friends who may not have stuff," she said.
The Heartland Alliance has a Commission on the Elimination of Poverty that is working on ways to cut extreme poverty in half by 2015.
"Some of the folks who were part of 'your parents' suburbs' are now facing this," Terpstra said.
• Daily Herald staff writer Jessica Cilella contributed to this report.