Austin could be our 'labor of love'


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I'm not the handiest guy, but three weeks ago I took part in a one-day service project in Austin called "Labor of Love," sponsored by Eyes on Austin, a local community organization. They've been doing this for about five years now, in partnership with a white congregation from First Presbyterian Church in Ottawa, Ill.

More and more Oak Parkers have been getting involved. State Sen. Don Harmon was on hand at 8 a.m., Aug. 20, trying to track down a brood of cousins and nephews he'd recruited.

Also present was a contingent from St. Edmund Church, among them Mac Robinet, Sandra and Jim Shimon, and Lori Jons. They'd seen an announcement in the church bulletin and volunteered.

We met in the sultry basement of Fraternite de Notre Dame Church, a French renegade offshoot of Catholicism, just north of Lake and Central for a fellowship breakfast and dishing out assignments. I joined a crew assigned to clean out the garage of an elderly?#34;and extremely sweet?#34;lady named Mary Ann Simmons who lives just south of the Eisenhower near Cicero, just down the street from the National Baking Co., so the aroma of baking bread attended our efforts.

Mrs. Simmons' husband died in 1986 and the garage harbored a quarter century's accumulation. The Simmons moved to this bungalow in 1969, when the entire West Side was resegregating and the same was predicted for Oak Park.

With a crew of six, we cleared her garage in no time. She was thrilled. We also installed a smoke detector in her house at the behest of the Chicago Fire Department, then returned to the Notre Dame parking lot to eat our sack lunch, dodge the wasps, and watch Cong. Danny Davis' annual Back to School Parade as it ebbed and flowed down Central Avenue toward Columbus Park where the Taste of Austin was in full flavor.

Our team leader, Dr. Kyle Wade (a naprapath) sat by the curb on a plastic milk carton crate and shouted at every parade participant, including Chicago police officers, "Be smart! Go to school! Stay in school!" The parade was long, and she had a splitting headache to show for it afterward. I helped one of the more ambitious crews load up more drywall sections, dodging a long line of Pontiac Grand Ams weaving in formation like Shriners on mini-bikes.

Dr. Wade teaches a class in manners for pre-teens and teens titled, "Polite and Powerful," and one of her graduates, Nick, accompanied us to our next assignment. Nick wore the laconic cool of an inner-city street kid, but said he wanted to start doing something "positive and constructive" with his life. He washed windows like he was afraid the glass would shatter, but promised he could polish my car so I could see myself in it.

Unfortunately, what the residents really wanted was to have the windows replaced, which we didn't have the expertise, tools or materials to accomplish, so we apologized and took our leave, though we had to go back to rescue Nick who had been cornered and was being proselytized by the very devout 2-flat owner.

Next I volunteered to drive lunches and supplies to some of the other work crews, which gave me a chance to cruise through Austin on a beautiful summer afternoon. The streets were alive with people, something most Oak Parkers and River Foresters never get to see?#34;a very different world, just a couple of miles removed.

When I returned, I sat with an Eyes on Austin staff person named Linda who said she often tries to imagine, when she travels about the neighborhoods, "what Austin looked like in its heyday."

I can't help hoping Austin's heyday is yet to come.

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