- Associated Press - Friday, June 10, 2016

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) - When Melissa Heil heard that Lutheran Social Services of Illinois was cutting jobs - hundreds of them, more casualties of the state budget impasse - she wanted to do something to help.

So in March, the University of Illinois geography graduate student got cracking on her big idea.

Within two months, the Illinois Atlas of Austerity - a slick, information-packed website that chronicles the effects of the ongoing budget stalemate - was launched at illinoisausterityatlas.com.

Using a combination of graphics and information capsules, the site focuses on four main areas - higher education, youth, health services and social services, the category that inspired Heil’s project.

“I saw that Lutheran Social Services in Illinois was laying off 43 percent of its staff. That registered as a great loss,” she said. “It was one organization. It really matters to people.”

The site has grown in popularity, with more than 20,000 people viewing it in the last week.

From rape crisis centers and autism support to MAP grants and HIV prevention programs, the site shows the effects lawmakers’ lack of action has had on 15 categories of public services. Each features a chart or map that breaks down the data in a format that’s easily digestible for online readers.

“The maps and the graph were created between graduation and when I have to start teaching this summer,” said Heil, who notes on the home page that her atlas is not a complex breakdown of the issue, but rather “snapshots” of the effects of the budget crisis.

Data comes from news articles, public information and research findings from groups like Voices for Illinois Children and Illinois Partners for Human Service.

Among Heil’s fans: Judith Gethner, executive director of Illinois Partners.

“I think she is very, very classy and very smart,” Gethner said. “Being quickly able to translate and understand what it is that we were saying and how she could turn that around for her site was amazing.”

Heil envisioned the site as a resource that organizations could use to help better educate people about what the budget does to them. The Michigan native got in contact with Gethner a few months ago to help build it.

“We want anyone and everyone in the state to lift up this mess that Illinois is in,” Gethner said. “Help us educate folks on impacts on real people and real families in the state of Illinois.”

Heil has made her charts available for any organization affected by the budget. And she’s not done.

“I want to add a section on environmental impacts, add a section on the impacts of community colleges,” she said. “Hopefully, there will be new posting within the week or the next few weeks. Depends on what happens with the budget situation.”

The last legislative session was on May 31, when lawmakers were unable to agree on a solution. Again.

“People think of it as an old story. It is 11 months old,” Gethner said. “We can’t allow this story to be dormant even for a day.”

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Source: The (Champaign) News-Gazette, http://bit.ly/1POJZKe

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Information from: The News-Gazette, http://www.news-gazette.com

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