Published Sept. 26, 2013
The Community House shines
like a 'gem'
With its rich legacy and wide reach, Hinsdale agency touches lives in multitude of ways
By Ken Knutson
Step into The Community House in Hinsdale at any given time on any given day, and the array of activities can be dizzying.
“If they look back toward the field house, they can see a basketball game. If they look to left at Kettering Hall, they can see a kids’ dance class. To the right is a service dog training class. Behind them is a Rotary meeting. And on the second floor is a retired men’s roundtable gathering,” said Jeni Fabian, executive director of the nonprofit center at 415 W. Eighth St. “We often have the entire building filled all day.”
For 73 years, The Community House has offered a diverse menu of programs in the area, which presently encompasses eight suburbs.
Established through a grass-roots effort in 1941, The Community House’s motto today is “Building community by providing inspiring opportunities for learning, social support and recreation.”
Activities like Jodie Harrison basketball and theater programs are well known, but the organization’s social services also fill an important need, Fabian said.
“People may not know that we have volunteer services, an autism center — Charlie’s Gift — and that we have counseling services,” she said.
Numerous clubs and organizations rely on the facility as a venue for special gatherings, and local businesses seek out The Community House to facilitate volunteer opportunities for their staff.
Fabian said the organization embraces chances to collaborate with local schools and fellow nonprofits in the area.
“Our partnerships are key, and we’re available and want to be a resource for local groups,” she said.
Ardie Baroni was introduced to The Community House through its then-annual antique show more than three decades ago.
Soon her children were taking advantage of the many offerings, including Fortnightly dance lessons, and her husband volunteered with the youth program.
“It was a center of activity,” she said of the organization.
Baroni’s antique show leadership earned her an invitation to join The Community House’s board of trustees from then-executive director Ly Hotchkin.
She accepted, and was involved in hiring Theresa Forthofer to succeed the retiring Hotchkin in 1995.
Baroni also worked as director of volunteers at The Community House for several years and sat on the facility committee that guided the renovation completed in 2001.
“We met every week with the contractor. That was quite an experience,” she said.
As a result of community input, the committee abandoned some plans, like creating a fitness center, and incorporated unforeseen ones, like a theater.
“We hadn’t really given that much thought until we got into the discussion of it. I thought that was a very positive aspect,” she said of the theater.
Fabian said space is in such demand that requests can not always be granted — not a terrible problem to have, she noted.
“We try to have opportunities for all ages, all walks of life, for any kind of support someone may need and opportunity to get involved and get to know their neighbors,” she said.
Financial support comes from participation and rental fees, memberships and through a variety of fundraising events.
“All of those together keep the lights on and also help us expand our reach so we can continue growing our programs,” Fabian said.
Even more valuable, she stressed, is people power.
“We couldn’t make our mission happen without the volunteers who are so generous with their time and their hearts,” she said.
Bill Kaczynski first volunteered with The Community House several years ago, helping to develop the organization’s mid- to long-term strategic plan.
That experience deepened his understanding and appreciation for all the agency does.
“That was really an epiphany,” he said, citing his new awareness of the counseling program and Willowbrook Corner program for at-risk youth. “That’s when the reality really sunk in that it’s not just recreation for the wealthy.”
In January, Kaczynski will take over as president of the board of trustees for The Community House from the outgoing Robert Early.
Even after more than seven decades, educating the public about the organization is still essential. Many neighbors are surprised to learn that The Community House is not a publicly supported institution.
“There is not a dime of government funding (in the budget),” he said.
He suggested that being one of the agency’s chief promoters is a role that comes easy.
“Whether it’s recreation, preschool, outreach or social services, I think The Community House does a really nice job of touching people’s lives in a special way,” he said.
Fabian said stories of lives touched are especially gratifying, stories like that of a woman who, having been aided by counseling services in her youth, is now an enthusiastic volunteer with the organization.
“We’re here at a time when someone needs help and support. When they then wish to give back to the community, they also turn back to The Community House as a way to do that,” she said.
Collaborative efforts among The Community House’s programs also warm Fabian’s heart, such as the pancake breakfast that middle school students prepare each year for the Senior Center.
“It’s hard to say which group is more excited about it,” she said. “People develop friendships and make connections and see everybody’s day get brightened through that kind of experience.”
Now a life trustee for the organization, Baroni has become a regular participant in Active Adult programs for seniors.
She praised The Community House for working to keep its offerings relevant by keeping its ears open to public feedback
Baroni takes special delight in watching her grandchildren enjoy the place that has meant so much to her over the years.
“The Community House is a vital part of the community. It’s a place you can go at any age and feel comfortable,” she said,
Fabian echoed that sentiment.
“It’s kind of gem,” Fabian said of multi-dimensional agency. “(People) cherish the fact that this is here, that it’s available to their families, and they want it to be available to their children and grandchildren in the years to come.”
By the numbers
The following figures from 2012 give a sense of the volume of activity The Community House sees on a regular basis.
• More than 2,000 households took part in recreation and theater activities in 2012
• Senior citizen trips, computer classes, and fitness programs served 600 citizens from 37 communities
• 3,000 children from 24 communities participated in athletic and educational programs
• The counseling department served more than 200 families in 3,350 sessions
• More than 100 children and families joined summer programs at Charlie’s Gift Autism Center
• 120 students in kindergarten through eighth grade took part in tutoring, career readiness programs and life skills workshops at the Willowbrook Corner Youth Learning Program
• A volunteer corps of more than 400 served as coaches, youth program assistants, special events coordinators and committee members
These events represent key milestones in the evolution of The Community House:
November 1941: The Community House Board of Governors meets for the first time
July 1942: The old Hinsdale Club in downtown Hinsdale becomes the Hinsdale Community House
May 1946: The Devil’s Den youth center for teen activities opens
September 1957: TCH’s new facility opens on 14 acres on the corner of Eighth and Madison streets
1961: Ly Hotchkin is named TCH’s first executive director (she serves until 1995)
1976: The counseling department opens, later becoming part of the DuPage Youth Services Coalition
Spring 1990: The Senior Center opens
February 1997: The first Community Revue stage production fundraiser is held, becoming a bi-annual event
September 2001: Work is completed on a $8.5 million renovation, doubling the building’s size
January 2003: TCH assumes the leadership role for the Neighborhood Center at Willowbrook Corner
2009: TCH integrates Charlie’s Gift autism center into its organization