Celebrate: OPALGA's annual gala, held in October, featured lots of dancing.OPALGA

About a year or so ago, the Oak Park Area Lesbian and Gay Association was in dire straits. Faced with a worsening cash crunch, the organization shut its offices, laid off its entire staff and handed off its programs to someone else.

Fast forward to today, and OPALGA just held its biggest fundraiser of the year, its annual gala, at the Nineteenth Century Club last month. The event raised $17,000 for the 14-year-old organization and attracted 200 guests. Cheryl Haugh, co-chair of OPALGA’s board of directors, says those dollars will go a long way toward wiping their debt off the books.

“I’m glad to see some of our lost members back and having a good energy with the organization again,” Haugh said. “We’re out of crisis.”

OPALGA was formed in 1989, a nonprofit that provided support groups for gays, along with a forum for political activism and cultural expression, according to its website. The group worked to establish a domestic partnership ordinance in the early ’90s and a domestic partnership registry in Oak Park for same-sex couples in 1997, and lobbied to amend the village’s human rights ordinance to include sexual orientation.

OPALGA draws funds from various sources, including state grants and paid memberships. With the onset of the Great Recession, fundraising lagged, and the state has been increasingly slow to pay its bills. In past years, the gala raised as much as $45,000.

So over a year ago, OPALGA decided to look inward to find a way to stop relying on state funds, said Greg Raub, the other board co-chair.

“We were always depending on money coming from the state, and that was always an unknown,” he said.

They formed a task force in the summer of 2009 to search for solutions to their credit crunch and decided to close their office at 947 Garfield, lay off their three part-time staff members, and transfer their support programs to the Center on Halsted and the PCC Community Wellness Center.

With the successful gala, OPALGA has been able to pay down its debts to Community Bank and board members who made loans to the organization, Haugh said. The support groups were their major focus before, but after shedding them, OPALGA seems to be returning more to its original focus of being a place for gays to be social and politically active.

“We’re reorganizing ourselves and going back to the original mission,” she said.

There seems to be renewed energy, according to Haugh, and they’re looking to attract more young members, as the membership is aging. OPALGA currently has between 100 and 150 members, about half of their peak membership.

Brad Bartels, co-chair of the gala, said the event was retooled this year to attract a bigger crowd. It was moved back to Oak Park, ticket prices dropped, and the party became more casual instead of black tie. Those changes went a long way toward a successful gala, he said.

“Over the past couple of years, organizations have been under a lot of stress when it comes to major fundraising events, and I think OPALGA this year was blessed by an outpouring of support from its community, as well as the broader community,” Bartels said.

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