Young people participating in the Austin neighborhood’s Kidz Express have a new multi-faceted computer lab, thanks to the efforts of the Rotary Club of Oak Park-River Forest. The lab was dedicated Nov. 4 in honor of former Rotary Club member Lesley Gottlinger, who died in June, just a few weeks before the first computers were delivered to the Kidz Express center at 5221 W. Congress Parkway.
Founded in 2005 by Oak Park residents Warren King and Duane Ehresman, Kidz Express serves youth 5 through 13 years old by matching them with mentors 14 through 28 years old. The paid mentors, typically young people who were in the program, serve as credible role models for their younger mentees. The center offers after-school and summer programming in health and nutrition, leadership development, music and dance, emotional counseling, college and career preparation, job training, childcare and tutoring.
The organization’s mission resonated with Gottlinger, who was a teacher in the Austin neighborhood for many years as well as a passionate advocate for young people.
“Lesley was the grande dame of our Rotary Club. She fell in love with this project and jumped on board immediately. She was just a force of nature and if she put her mind to something, it was going to happen,” said Iris Saavedra-Zaldivar, one of three local Rotarians to spearhead the project.
The computer lab was a few years in the making, delayed by complications associated with the COVID pandemic. Rotary Club member Christine Baissac-Hayden first brought Kidz Express to the club’s attention in 2019. She is a neighbor of its executive director, Douglas Low, and has worked for the organization.
“I moved from France to the U.S. in 2017,” said Baissac-Hayden. “I had a vision of America as being big and beautiful, like you see on TV. But working at Kidz Express was a major crash landing. The kids I met and hearing the situations they experienced was heartbreaking. These kids had witnessed things most of us haven’t.”
The local Rotary club decided to tackle an ambitious computer renovation project for Kidz Express as a way of making a significant impact in the lives of children on the West Side and to celebrate the club’s centennial.
To maximize its fundraising efforts, the club decided to apply for a global grant from Rotary International’s World Fund. To be eligible for the grant, which is usually given exclusively to overseas projects in partnership with U.S. clubs, the club had to enlist support from foreign countries.
“Kidz Express is an organization in our own backyard that is serving disadvantaged youth in a community impacted by unemployment, violence and disinvestment. I believe strongly in prevention rather than cure — and Kidz Express uses a prevention model for helping youth. … We thought the computer project was a perfect use of a Rotary grant,” said Saavedra-Zaldivar.
The grant, “Bridging the Digital Divide Through Peace,” focuses on peace circles and conflict resolution as well as computers and computer skills training. While Baissac-Hayden served as the liaison with Kidz Express, Gottlinger was responsible for writing the grant and assuring that it met Rotary guidelines. Saavedra-Zaldivar was the salesperson, convincing overseas Rotary clubs to support the project. She received funding from clubs in Bolivia, Italy, Colombia, Canada and France, Baissac-Hayden’s native country. In addition, Chicagoland Rotary District 6450 contributed to the effort. All told, the intrepid team raised approximately $91,000 and the Oak Park-River Forest club kicked in an additional amount to fund a total $100,000 project in honor of its 100th anniversary.
The fundraising effort resulted in the purchase of laptops, desktops, Adobe software, internet access points, printers and a photocopier as well as tables and chairs.
“The computer room is a fitting tribute to Lesley, who had a real legacy with the Rotary Club,” said Ade Onayemi, district governor of Rotary District 6450 and former president of the Rotary Club of Oak Park-River Forest. “She was very proud that both of her parents were strong Rotarians. She was very involved in our club as well as with District 6450. She was the youth exchange officer for our club, recruiting local host families for our high school international students and serving as a den mother for the kids for 15 years. There were kids all over the world who were devastated by her death.”
Gottlinger and Onayemi also co-chaired the Rotary’s Interact Club for students at Trinity, Fenwick and Oak Park and River Forest high schools. The youth club works on service projects throughout the year and sends members to an annual U.N. Model program to introduce them to how the U.N. works on global issues.
“Lesley was the Pied Piper and a grandma to all kids. She was passionate about helping disadvantaged kids improve their lives. And she was passionate about using Rotary as a vehicle to change lives. She would be happy to know the Rotary Club’s computer project has reached fruition,” said Onayemi.