By Tom Holmes
With years of deferred maintenance put on hold as it considered a move to Forest Park — a prospect that sank with the slumping economy four years ago — the West Cook YMCA has spent $500,000 so far this year renovating its six-decade-old building.
The money has gone toward expanding the Y's wellness center, which has received new equipment costing roughly $250,000. Currently, the "wet areas"— including showers, toilets and steam rooms in the men's and women's spas — are being redone for the remaining quarter million.
To the casual observer it looks like a remodeling project, but to West Cook Y CEO Jan Pate and her board it is continuation of the organization's charitable mission.
"A YMCA is not a building," insists Pate, referring to the brick structure at 255 S. Marion in Oak Park. "A YMCA is a movement of people who work together for the common good and create community relationships. The mission has never changed."
But that vision seems to have been forgotten by many, according to board member and Forest Park bookstore owner, Augie Aleksy, when plans for a new $24 million Forest Park facility were announced eight years ago. The public perception, he recalled, was that the Y wanted to build a bigger health club than the ones in the near west suburbs.
"We became aware that a lot of people didn't know what the Y was about," Aleksy said.
Pate recalled: "We took a step back when those plans did not materialize and really looked at what our vision should be." The board determined that they would get back to what they had always done well: youth development, healthy living and social responsibility.
The West Cook Y runs a summer camp, a preschool, and before- and after-school programs, among others for youth. Pate said those programs also involve personal growth and development for youth. Officials also pointed out that many community members come to the Y primarily to workout. According to Pate, the Y's healthy living programs help adults relieve stress and helps obese children learn healthier lifestyles. Pate also held up the Y's SRO (Single Room Occupancy) residents as an example of the organization's social responsibility efforts.
"The gentlemen who live here are in transition," she said. "A lot of them work fulltime but prefer to live here because of circumstances in their lives. The rooms at the Y are critical in some cases, in which we are the safety-net before they become homeless."
Adapting the Y's mission to an ever-changing society has been an ongoing challenge, officials note.
When the YMCA came to Oak Park in 1903, programming included adult education and bible study. Its programs obviously have had to expand since, Pate noted. The organization moved to its present location in 1953. The need for daycare was met with those services beginning in the 1970s.
"Our business model is that we are a charity that strengthens the foundations of community," Pate said. "We never turn anyone away here for the inability to pay. We rely on the generosity of the community in addition to the support of our members.