Driving along the cobbled surface of the 700 block of Belleforte, I looked at the distinguished homes and old-fashioned street lamps that all of us who grew up in Oak Park know so well, and I reflected that what I was seeing today was probably what I would have seen on this route more than 100 years ago, around the time that Hephzibah Children’s Association was founded.

Oak Park’s history encompasses many extraordinary people and contributions across a wide number of fields. However, one of the aspects of Oak Park’s history that is most widely recognized throughout the Chicago area, and is most highly prized by its own residents, is its mission of caring for others.

A central figure in Oak Park’s history of caring is, of course, Mary Wessels, the founder of Hephzibah Children’s Association. With a few simple words, “I have begun my work,” Mary launched an organization that has journeyed through a storied history and has become a part of the fabric of Oak Park itself.

Almost immediately after Mary founded Hephzibah, friends, neighbors, and local merchants began supporting her mission by donating whatever they could spare. As word of Hephzibah spread, more people and businesses responded — with donated food and medical care in the late 1800s, with assistance in officially establishing Hephzibah as a nonprofit organization in 1902, and with donations totaling $78,000 in the mid-1920’s (the equivalent of a whopping $1.5 million today) to build Hephzibah’s iconic H-shaped house that still stands on North Boulevard.

Oak Parkers have provided continuous and indispensable support to Hephzibah through the decades, and Hephzibah’s myriad services are all underpinned by the surrounding community’s donations, volunteer work, and attendance at various fundraising events.

One special annual fundraiser for Hephzibah is “Oak Park After Dark.” This unique event is a cocktail reception that focuses on Oak Park’s rich cultural heritage. In its inaugural year, Oak Park After Dark took place at the Oak Park Art League and featured a memorable exhibit, “Through the Cracks, the Light Comes In,” which explored the theme of beauty emerging out of that which has been broken. Attendees were excited to see that a professional sculptor had also taken mosaic pieces created by the children at Hephzibah’s group home and incorporated them into an installation in the League’s front courtyard.

This year’s Oak Park After Dark, will be held at the Oak Park River Forest Museum on the evening of Saturday, Oct. 5, and promises to be an exciting and enriching event, with a featured local artist, live music, and a collection of thousands of photographs, vintage costumes, and artifacts from Oak Park’s history. 

I know I’ll be looking for a photograph of that cobbled block on Belleforte, as well as the many reminders of my childhood in Oak Park that I know will be there to discover.

Anyone interested in attending Oak Park After Dark 2019 should visit the event page on Hephzibah’s website: https://www.hephzibahhome.org/event/2019-oak-park-after-dark.

Beth Cannon grew up in Oak Park and is currently a member of Hephzibah’s Auxiliary Board.

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