The Park District of Oak Park’s Board of Commissioners gave staff the go-ahead to begin bringing the Oak Park River Forest Senior Center into the fold.

The proposal, which the board considered at its May 24 meeting, seeks for the senior center to become the park district program, with the park district taking over responsibility for operations and staffing. 

The senior center’s existing board of directors will continue on as a fundraising entity and to offer advice. And both parties hope to move the senior center from its current space in the Oak Park Arms to Dole Center, 255 Augusta Blvd. 

The move would provide the park district with something it currently doesn’t have — crafts classes for seniors, complete with equipment — and the senior center, which has been struggling to raise enough money to stay afloat, hopes to continue providing services it offered for generations. 

Negotiations between to the park district and senior center are ongoing; neither party has any definitive date for when they might conclude.

According to Nancy Teclaw, the senior center’s executive director, the Oak Park River Forest Senior Center is the oldest organization of its kind in Illinois. It opened its doors in 1954 and relies on member fees, grants and fundraisers. 

While the Oak Park Township’s senior services are geared toward addressing health, transportation and wellness needs, Oak Park River Forest Senior Center’s mission has always been, as Teclaw put it, “to serve the elderly through education and recreation.” 

To that end, the center offers a number of classes, including art, ceramics, crafts, weaving, jewelry-making, woodworking and sewing, as well as foreign language classes, creative writing and drop-in bridge games.

The senior center has been talking with the park district about joining forces for the past month. When asked why the senior center is pursuing this, Teclaw said that financial strain was a big part of it.

“We’re finding it more and more difficult to provide dollars that we need for our programs,” she said. “Grant writing in itself is a burden, because we always had to rely on volunteers to write grants. It’s becoming more and more difficult for those things to happen.”

Teclaw said that, as a private entity, the senior center can’t apply for the kind of funding the township and the park district can. And while she said she was grateful for everything Oak Park Arms does for them, she said that the senior center has to pay for things like telephone and internet service as well as and insurance. 

“I think, at this time, we have unique opportunity,” Teclaw said. “Your district knows how to do the park kind of thing. What our [senior center] is good at is maker space. I think if we combine those two concepts, that’s something that the community can really benefit from.”

Park district Executive Director Jan Arnold said the partnership would give the park district an opportunity to use the senior center for classes for youth and adults. The seniors would still be able to take the classes they currently take, and the senior center employees would keep doing what they’re doing — they would just become park district employees. 

One issue that came up on May 24 was the subject of senior center members who aren’t from Oak Park. Teclaw said that in addition to members from Oak Park and River Forest, the senior center has members from Forest Park, Elmwood Park, Berwyn, Galewood and Austin. 

If the senior center adopts the park district’s fee structure, the non-Oak Parkers would have to pay higher non-resident rates. That could be addressed by the senior center board raising money to cover the non-resident portion of the fee, or by adopting a flat fee structure.

The park district board also touched on moving the senior center to Dole Center. The building is village-owned, with the park district and Oak Park Public Library leasing spaces. 

Teclaw said the move would save money compared to what the senior center pays the Oak Park Arms. Arnold said that they could potentially use two rooms the village currently uses for storage to add space, as well as take advantage of some other underused areas.

“We believe that this would be best location to bring seniors together,” Arnold told the board.

Under this scenario, the library branch wouldn’t be affected. Arnold said that the library had no problem with the idea and that they would be interested in collaborating with the park district on some inter-generational programming. 

Any change in the current leasing arrangements would require village approval — which is something the parties involved are still discussing. 

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Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Growing Community Media newspapers in 2012, then from 2015...