By Devin Rose
As a 17-year-old American Field Service student spending her summer in Indonesia, Elizabeth Lippitt saw for the first time what poverty really looked like.
The teenager from Baltimore was on her first trip outside of the United States and was extremely affected by what she saw—kids begging in the streets, some disabled and many starving. It was an eye-opener for Lippitt, who started to think more about the issues children face when she returned home.
"It really affected what I did for the rest of my life," Lippitt, 58, said last week. She now serves as the executive director of The Children's Clinic, which delivers dental, medical and social services to area children from infancy through age 18. The clinic is sponsored by the Oak Park River Forest Infant Welfare Society.
On Saturday, the former District 97 school board member will be honored by the Oak Park Education Foundation at the 18th annual William C. Staszak Award Dinner and Benefit. The award recognizes individuals who demonstrate humanitarian spirit, devotion and service to children
During her time at the clinic, Lippitt has realized just how many families in Oak Park are struggling with hunger, lost jobs and a lack of health insurance that can keep kids home from school if they're experiencing pain. Unlike what she saw during her service trip, Lippitt realized the issues in this country are often hidden and intertwined.
"I really firmly believe that you can't become a healthy person unless you're a literate person," she said. "If you can't read a prescription bottle or you can't read a brochure on how to take care of your child's asthma, your child's health is going to be compromised."
At the clinic, where she has worked for 16 years, Lippitt and her staff find ways to help families with those intertwined issues. They have a dietician that helps set up food plans and teaches families how to cook healthy recipes. At each visit, kids can take home a book from the clinic's library. The parents get a bookmark with book recommendations and suggested reading times.
Lippitt also served on the Oak Park Education Foundation board for six years, where she oversaw programs that brought in volunteer scientists and artists for the kids. Those programs, like the Vex Robotics competition, keep kids engaged because they're having fun while learning, Lippitt said.
"Oftentimes we sell our kids too short," she said. "I'm always amazed at their creativity and how bright they are."
Lippitt admitted it can be hard to convince people to make a lifestyle change and learn to cook and eat more healthy foods in a fast food environment. As the mother of two adult children, she said she would've made some different food choices for them if she had known then what she knows now.
But since she was a working mother with young kids it has also given her a sensitivity in her job, Lippitt said.
The biggest difficulty she's faced has been cuts in funding, and the clinic relies on grants and fundraising events to get by. Lippitt said she hopes the Staszak dinner will be well-attended because donations will go to the education foundation.
In the meantime, Lippitt's drive to continue her work comes from the success stories she hears and sees. You have to be excited and able to collaborate to do her job, because the community's future depends on it.
"We're working with the most precious commodity that any society has—their kids," Lippitt said, adding that every child has potential despite life circumstances that may get in the way.
"It's up to the rest of us to find mechanisms to help. We all have to be in it together, and I really do believe that.
For information about the Staszak dinner, or to donate to the Oak Park Education Foundation, visit opef.org/events/staszak.