Presenting Sponsors-Melissa Cleveland and Chris Griffith-Oak Park Bank | Provided

Roughly 150 people gathered at Cheney Mansion Oct. 11 for the Oak Park and River Forest Chamber of Commerce’s Spotlight Soiree. The soiree was the culmination of the chamber’s month-long “Spotlight Celebration” of small business resilience in the community.

This year, the chamber opted to celebrate those whose efforts contributed to that resilience, handing out awards to individuals. In past years, when the event was called the Spotlight Awards, honors were given to businesses. That model was reevaluated during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Liz Holt, chamber executive director.

“It was very much – ‘Here’s the top 10 nominees and one business wins,’” Holt said. “Since COVID, we’ve really gotten away from that.”

When the event returned last year, the chamber scrapped the entire award ceremony completely out of respect for the hard times businesses and people alike had been experiencing due to the pandemic and its effect on the economy. The event was just a celebration of making it through.

“We were trying to be sensitive to the world that we’re in,” said OPRF Chamber of Commerce Board President Darien Marion-Burton. “We really are about celebrating everyone.”

Marion-Burton hosted this year’s event, which also saw the return of awards – but in an altogether different format. Instead of recognizing one business, the chamber recognized 15 deserving individuals with the same honor – the Community Titan award. People were nominated for the award through an anonymous poll.

“We realized over COVID [-19] that there were a lot of individual people in our community and in our business community that went above and beyond in support,” said Holt.

Oak Park native Melissa Cleveland presented the awards on behalf of Oak Park Bank, which sponsored the event and where Cleveland serves as vice president and director of retail banking. Cleveland is also the chamber’s director-at-large.

Determining what constitutes a community titan prompted much discussion in the many different ways a person can effect meaningful change in local business communities. Consideration ranged from people making great innovative strides to seasoned business individuals mentoring others. The chamber also gave consideration to those making efforts to prioritize equity and environmental sustainability in Oak Park and River Forest.

“I think we really had meaningful, true titan-like criteria,” said Cleveland.

Or, as Marion-Burton phrased it, the individuals who received the community titan award were chosen for embodying the chamber’s many values.

Winners included Jerry Vainisi, known locally as the owner of Forest Park Bank and more widely as a top Chicago Bears executive during the Super Bowl era.

Two members of the Growing Community Media team received Community Titan awards. Oak Park Eats Editor Melissa Elsmo was awarded for her food writing and its positive impact on the local restaurant scene, while GCM Publisher Dan Haley was recognized for keeping the Oak Park and River Forest communities informed through Wednesday Journal.

Here are this year’s Community Titans

  • Sandra Sokol
  • Judith Alexander
  • Dan Haley
  • Pat Koko
  • Ravi Parakkat
  • David Silverstein
  • Reesheda Graham Washington
  • Melissa Elsmo
  • Rob Guenthner
  • Kim Humphrey
  • Michelle Mascaro
  • Jeffrey Hines
  • Mary Ann Bender
  • Sam Yousif
  • Jerry Vainisi

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