When a nonprofit’s main source of revenue comes from having in-person group tours, how does it go on when it is shut down? This is the question the Hemingway Foundation faced since the Ernest Hemingway Birthplace Home, 339 N. Oak Park Ave., Oak Park, closed its doors in mid-March. 

The home brings in $10,000 to $15,000 each month from its tours, according to Executive Director Keith Strom. He also said 40 percent of visitors are international travelers. 

“We depend on people coming to this place,” said Strom. “And this is our high season.”

Tours are led by volunteer docents, many older and in a high-risk category for complications if they become ill from COVID-19, said Strom.

The hoped for solution for the foundation, implemented May 22, is live virtual tours. Up to 15 visitors can sign up for each tour and a docent leads an interactive experience through the birthplace home, sharing stories of Ernest Hemingway, his family and his early years in Oak Park, while answering visitors’ questions along the way. The usual $15 per person charge applies. 

To start, only one docent is leading tours to make sure all goes smoothly and to trouble shoot any technical problems that may arise before other docents are trained. The tours are being offered twice each day, Wednesday through Sundays. 

The Hemingway Foundation has been affected financially in other ways during the pandemic.

It’s annual gala, which takes place in May at a local venue, was canceled this year. The income from the gala accounts for 10 to 15 percent of the foundation’s budget. It is as much a way to raise community awareness as it is a fundraiser, according to Strom. The event also launches an annual publication, which is the result of a writing contest for both adults and teens, Hemingway Shorts. 

The fifth annual Hemingway Shorts was not thwarted from being published, however. Fiction writers, especially those who have never been published, are invited to submit short stories for consideration with a deadline in April. The works of one overall winner and 10 finalists are put into the publication. 

Oak Park and River Forest High School juniors are also invited to enter a writing contest. The 2020 overall winner, who receives a $1,000 college scholarship, is Allen White. Scholarship finalists are Jackson Tanner and Eleanor Sigel. A high school senior writer was recognized this year with a new scholarship that honors Allan O. Baldwin, former Hemingway Foundation chair who died last year. Ella Haas received that $1,000 college scholarship. All four students’ work are featured in Hemingway Shorts. 

All the writers who are published in Hemingway Shorts are invited to attend the gala. The writers for 2020 come from as near as Chicago and as far as Trinidad and Tobago.

“We usually meet the students and adults in person at the gala,” Strom said. “For the students, especially, I am going to miss seeing the smiles on their faces.”

The top junior is also given an opportunity to work with the Hemingway Foundation’s Writer in Residence, currently Laura Young, as a mentor during senior year. 

As part of being a Writer in Residence at the Hemingway Birthplace Home, the attic space is available to use as a creative haven. Young has been able to continue to not only work there, but have access to the whole house, according to Strom, and bring her children, the bright side to cancelled tours. Young has also finished her book, The Butcher, while working there. 

The foundation received a Small Business Administration/Paycheck Protection Program loan but were denied Arts for Illinois Relief Fund money and await word on an Illinois Humanities grant. 

Other canceled events, such at the annual Hemingway 8K Running for the Bulls Race, planned for July 18, and a Friday @ Hemingways featuring singer Jenny Bienemann, slated for June 19, continue to reduce visibility as well as cash flow.   

Instead, the nonprofit is appealing to donors, considering options for an online fundraiser and hoping virtual live tours will keep them on track financially. 

They are also introducing a new member benefit, which includes a workspace for the day – the opportunity, through a sign up, to work in the birthplace home. 

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