You don’t survive 99 years without hitting a few bumps in the road. And the Oak Park-River Forest Day Nursery, in operation since 1912, hit a big one recently.
The nonprofit, which provides full-time day care and preschool for kids, 2-6, was mired in red ink. Enrollment dipped last year, cuts were made and the staff went without a raise for the past three years.
Executive Director Catherine Hart said these have been the most difficult years in her 21 years at the helm.
“These last couple of years have been tremendously challenging, and when I say tremendously challenging, I do mean tremendously challenging,” she said.
But the day nursery may be making a U-turn toward financial stability as the organization heads toward its century mark in 2012. The current enrollment of 74 is just three students shy of capacity, and well above a recent low of 55. That uptick has led to the reopening of their fifth classroom and the hiring of a new teacher and teacher’s assistant. New board presidents Michael Lavery and Ian Costello just took over on Jan. 1 and are hoping to bring renewed energy to the day nursery.
“We have seen the light at the end of the tunnel,” Lavery said. “Our finances have certainly stabilized and are improving.”
The problems that led to the day nursery’s struggles were numerous, according to Lavery. The organization was started by the Nineteenth Century Club of Oak Park in 1912 as a way to provide full-time day care for working mothers. But with the onset of the Great Recession, many working parents lost their jobs, and with that, the need for full-time day care, Lavery said.
Their endowment was whacked when the stock market swooned, state and local grants dried up, and the day nursery has had to manage issues with its aging facility. So severe were the troubles, Lavery said, that closure seemed a possibility.
“We were in the red, and the potential for having to close down was something that maybe wasn’t discussed seriously, but was a possibility,” he said.
Lavery credited increased marketing efforts over the past year, along with an improving economy and the refurbishing of three classrooms for helping to perk things up.
Hart, though, isn’t declaring victory just yet. She’s hoping to recruit more people to serve on the nonprofit’s board of directors, which only has six members, down from its full capacity of 23. They have 25 students leaving soon for kindergarten, and Hart wants to see how quickly they can fill those slots.
“It’s still precarious out there,” she said. “I would like to think we’ve turned the corner, but another couple of months will tell me for sure.”