It’s time again for Big Ideas in Oak Park and River Forest.

That’s because the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation’s Entrepreneur Leaders in Philanthropy is set to award its annual $50,000 Big Idea grant, which goes to organizations working to effect positive change in the community.

This year is the fourth annual Big Idea grant, and Entrepreneur Leaders in Philanthropy has already awarded $167,000 for big ideas over the last three years, according to Community Foundation spokesperson Michelle Ptak.

The group, made up of local business owners and community leaders, has selected five finalists for this year’s grant and is holding its annual awards ceremony on Wednesday, March 13 at 5:30 p.m. at Wire, 6815 Roosevelt Road, in Berwyn.

The finalists include:

It’s Our Future 

This initiative by Oak Park-based Seven Generations Ahead, which promotes ecologically and environmentally sustainable communities, is designed to equip Oak Park and River Forest High School students with the tools to advocate for reducing climate change.

Gary Cuneen, executive director of Seven Generations, said the “It’s Our Future” campaign includes a media workshop series that encourages students to produce radio shows, podcasts and other material to connect with their peers and with decision makers to effect change.

The workshops will also connect teens with the global youth movement in other parts of the world working on sustainability issues.

“I think it’s important for youth to be involved because they’re the ones who are going to bear the consequences of action or inaction,” Cuneen said. “It really is about their futures. They need to be educated. They need to be able to hold adults accountable on what is going to be a massive failure or a huge success.”

Kindness Creators Intergenerational Program 

This innovative daycare program was recently approved by the Oak Park Board of Trustees to open two classrooms at the Oak Park Arms senior living facility, 408 S. Oak Park Ave.

The program by Jaime Moran and Pamela Lawrence pairs toddlers, age 3 to 5, with seniors in a mutually beneficial daycare setting that is set to launch later this year.

 Moran told Wednesday Journal that the program is still building out two classroom spaces at the facility and purchasing furniture and other equipment.

“The grant money would be used for furnishing our classrooms, community outreach, starting a scholarship foundation for families who need help with tuition, and advertising [to get] our name out there,” Lawrence said, adding that she came up with the idea while visiting her mother in a nursing home with her young daughter. “When we would leave, they would want to know when we were coming back,” she said.

Lawrence noted that such programs are increasingly common in Europe. “Seniors do feel a sense of isolation and depression and loneliness; we wanted to connect the seniors to the children,” she said. 

Maram Makerspace 

Mary Anne Mohanraj has been working for the last couple of years to bring a maker space to Oak Park.

The space would provide classes in writing, technology, cooking, crafts and others for students and fledgling entrepreneurs of all ages.

Mohanraj has been holding the classes at various locations around Oak Park over the last year or so, and the Big Idea grant would go a long way toward securing a permanent home, she told Wednesday Journal in February.

“We’re trying to build a sort of vibrant welcoming space where all members of the community can feel comfortable,” Mohanraj said, adding that it aims to help cultivate young makers and thought leaders to stay in the village, making Oak Park their base of operations.

STEAM Fuel Lab 

Steve Conner, founder and CEO of Oak Park-based HEPH Foundation, said his program has been in operation for about five years, working to encourage students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

STEAM Fuel Lab works with students at OPRF High School and holds workshops and summer camps throughout the community to make STEM topics interesting for students.

The curriculum takes an “entertainment approach” to education, Conner said, teaching kids how to fly drones, program electronic skateboards, and develop other technologies that make learning interesting.

“It’s very much about teaching entrepreneurialism; many of the new jobs coming around in the next 10 to 20 years don’t even exist yet,” he said.

Conner said the grant would help buy more computer workstations and tech kits for students and provide transportation to the workshops. 


This program is an initiative by the Oak Park Education Foundation to provide access to “connect high-need K-8 Oak Park and River Forest students to available scholarship opportunities and ultimately demonstrate higher demand that will inspire more providers to expand scholarship offerings.”

“This is getting everyone on the same page and removing barriers for families that qualify for scholarships,” Tracy Dell’Angela Barber, executive director of the education foundation, said in a telephone interview. 

The funding would be used to hire a part-time scholarship coordinator, who would work with families, manage scholarship applications for various programs and launch a website for users.

After full implementation, she said, partners in the program could sustain SHINE through modest subscription fees.

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