It would have been simple for the West Cook YMCA to blame this infernal economy for the colossal failure of its giant capital-raising plan and promised skedaddling to a spectacular new facility in Forest Park.
Instead, the Y’s board and staff, now ensconced on Marion Street for the duration, have taken a long, hard inward look. They’ve concluded the main reason they couldn’t raise the $15 million they needed for their grand reimagining is that their place in the community is not strong enough, that their story is not compelling enough and, that when you get right down to it, maybe the local Y hasn’t been true enough to its mission.
That’s a realization many nonprofits would choose to keep under their hats. Especially after spending many years focused on dramatic and very public efforts: first, to rebuild in Oak Park; then to exit Oak Park and enter complex negotiations with the Village of Forest Park about buying a large, vacant parcel of government-owned land.
“We came to the organic decision not to move forward,” says Geri McLauchlan, the Y’s board chair for the past 10 months and a local Realtor. “Our conclusion was that we were not ready. We have to regroup. We didn’t have a relevant, compelling story. We have to rewrite our story.”
Jan Pate, the Oak Park village trustee, has worked at the West Cook YMCA for nearly five years but became president of the group just as the decision to abandon the capital campaign was made. “It was an agonizing couple of months and a hurtful decision to make,” Pate says. “Now we are making a change in strategy to reach our mission. We thought a new building was the strategy, but it wasn’t.”
According to Pate, the local Y suffers from the same challenges the national YMCA has identified through an extensive branding study that will be unveiled later this year. Everyone knows the YMCA, she says of the national study, but it’s not seen as more than a fitness center by most people.
The local Y already is focusing on two notable changes in an effort to refocus its mission. The first is to embrace all 10 of the disparate suburbs it’s supposed to serve. From Stone Park to Maywood and Bellwood, the West Cook Y encompasses a wide geography that is largely underserved on challenges facing kids and communities. Pate is spending a great deal of time listening to community organizations across Proviso Township that never before heard from the YMCA in Oak Park. Park districts, churches, boys’ and girls’ clubs are now on the radar of the Y as it actively seeks ways to collaborate in places it hasn’t been active. “These groups don’t know us,” says Pate. “But they are overflowing with ideas.”
McLauchlan and Pate also state emphatically that the Y is staying in Oak Park and in its current facility. “It isn’t a dump. It is an old building,” says Pate, who has worked hard with staff to renew the Marion Street building that dates to 1954. The institutional white is gone, with fresh colors in place, more attention to housekeeping, and plans to reinvest in notable ways such as making the pool accessible.
The pair also pledge to keep and to improve the Y’s single-room occupancy facility which provides affordable housing to 125-plus men. A source of controversy, plans for a new facility had abandoned that service. “As long as we are here, we’ll have the SRO,” Pate says. “It is a critical need in Oak Park. Improving the rooms is on the front burner.”
These are big and positive changes for our YMCA. Not as splashy as a $24.3 million building. But real and more essential.