The Oak Park-River Forest Day Nursery, 1139 Randolph St., is recognizing Charlene “Char” Schwar on Feb. 27 for her service to the organization, by awarding her the 2019 Rocking Horse Award.

As devoted as she is beloved, Schwar has been volunteering with the 108-year-old daycare organization ever since her son attended, more than 40 years ago.

“She is the heart and soul of this place,” said Day Nursery Executive Director Cari Christoff. “Anyone who is associated with the Day Nursery knows Char.”

Naming Schwar the recipient of the award was an easy decision for those involved with the Day Nursery.

“At the same time, we all went Char,” Christoff said. “There is nothing she wouldn’t do for the Day Nursery.”

Schwar burst into tears when she found out she had been chosen as the recipient of the award. 

“This has been my home away from home,” she said. “It came to my heart when I needed it.”

Many people, Schwar said, get happily drawn into longtime volunteer commitments because of how wonderful the daycare program is.

“And the building grabs me,” she said. 

The Day Nursery was founded in 1912 by a group of like-minded women intent on providing the best care for children and support for parents.

The founders wanted the nursery to look and feel as close to home as possible. They enlisted the services of architect Charles B. White, Frank Lloyd Wright’s protégé, to design a house. 

“You come in and it smells of food; it’s like bringing your kids home,” Schwar said.

The sweeping, Tudor-style house White designed couldn’t be more welcoming if it were made of gingerbread. Constructed in 1926, the nursery operates out of that very house to this day.

According to Christoff, the Rocking Horse Award goes to someone who embodies the ideals of the nursery. 

“She personifies what the Day Nursery was intended to do – to give families an opportunity to have their children be in a place where they can be welcomed and loved and nurtured and given the skills that they need to be successful,” Christoff said.

It’s fitting that Schwar should receive the Rocking Horse Award, as it was her idea to make the rocking horse the Day Nursery’s emblem. The adoption of the rocking horse symbol exemplifies Schwar’s contributions to the daycare provider.

Her dedication to the nursery stems from the wonderful treatment and experiences her son received while under the organization’s care. 

“What we offer here is so much more than just watching a kid,” she said.  

Her expansive work with the nursery includes serving as the president of its board of directors, as well as the president of its advisory council. 

She’s served on numerous Day Nursery committees, including the one that interviewed Christoff for the executive director position. 

As a member of the development committee, Schwar hosts meetings at her house, serving snacks and white wine with plenty of ice cubes – her signature drink.

“She takes good care of us,” Christoff said.

An unrelenting can-do force, Schwar was instrumental in securing grant funding for a new playground at the Day Nursery. Upon receiving the grant in 2014, she recruited more than 200 volunteers of various ages and abilities from a variety of Oak Park organizations to build the playground.

“Opportunity Knocks was here. We had some of the residents from the YMCA. Some of the staff at the Y. There were people here from the hospital,” Christoff said. 

That day is one Schwar’s most favorite memories of her time with the nursery. 

“I always said if I die, spread my ashes somewhere near the Day Nursery, along the playground maybe,” she said.

Now a Rocking Horse Award recipient, Schwar does not intend to rest on her laurels. She intends to keep volunteering. An avid gardener, Schwar would like to see the nursery’s side yard turned into a memorial garden.

“Char doesn’t do things without passion,” Christoff said. “I think it’s very important that we recognize her for who she is and what she gives.” 

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