Tired of a park district administration they say is deaf to their needs and strained by budget cuts of nearly $150,000 over the past year, volunteers at Austin’s LaFollette Park came together last month as a newly formed advisory council.
In a lightly attended but highly energetic meeting, the council’s leadership offered the LaFollette Park Advisory Council as a way to raise funds for the beleaguered park and raise LaFollette’s profile at City Hall.
The group held its first public meeting Aug. 19, seeking input and help from the community as it works to gain the attention of the Chicago Park District. More pressing, the volunteers said they are facing another underfunded year of activities at a park they can no longer afford to subsidize.
To those in attendance, the council asked for a commitment. At the beginning of the meeting, president and park volunteer Al Johnson passed around a form for new council board members, offering a vote on all committee decisions in exchange for adding another voice to the chorus advocating for LaFollette Park.
“We need all the volunteers we can get,” Johnson explained to the nine audience members. “The more board members we have, the stronger we are and the easier it is for us to get attention from the city. … The advisory council gives us a voice to say, ‘Hey this needs to get done.'”
The three council leaders-
Johnson, Vice President Katrina Bailey and Treasurer Tanequa Crumpton, who led the spirited, hour-long meeting – shared grievances with the Austin residents sitting in a small gym annex in the park’s field house. Many of the complaints about the conditions of the park have not changed since residents made their complaints public earlier this summer
First was the perceived inequity between the city services offered to residents of Austin and those of other neighborhoods. While residents shared complaints about areas of the park in disrepair, volunteers matched them with stories of requests to the city never answered and noted that end-of-season banquets have been paid for by volunteer coaches.
Wanda Hopkins, a Local School Council member from nearby Ella Flagg Young School, 1434 N. Parkside Ave., said she was interested in joining the council to hold the park district’s feet to the fire, saying she would tell them, “These are the things that we’re not asking you to do, we’re telling you to do.”
“It’s ridiculous,” she said. “They are spending money all over the city in other neighborhoods and other communities that don’t look like us.”
One employee of the park district, who asked not be named, said multiple requests had been sent to the park district’s main office for needed landscape or to install waiting equipment, with no response. The worker did note one exception to the park district’s alleged neglect of LaFollette Park.
“A lot of times Mayor [Richard M.] Daley picks LaFollette to do his press conferences,” the employee said. “You should see the landscaping then.”
The council’s founders said they had been developing a “wish list” for the park, and asked for help organizing the advisory council’s priorities, which they plan to present at the group’s next meeting, scheduled for Sept. 16 at the LaFollette Park field house. Many of those items are based on putting greater pressure on the park district’s administration, but Johnson and Crumpton said the more immediate need is fundraising.
“I don’t want people to think the advisory council is just for raising money,” Crumpton said, but the park needs money badly.
According to the Chicago Park District’s 2010 budget appropriations, LaFollette’s million-dollar budget decreased by about $20,000 from 2009 to 2010. Most immediately affecting Johnson and his fellow volunteers was the cut in their expense budget, which fell from $23,000 in 2009 to $3,680 in 2010, a nearly 87-percent drop.
Those cuts have made it difficult for the park to serve all the kids who wish to participate in the activities at LaFollette.
“I do the cheerleading program, and there are some kids whose parents just cannot pay the fee,” Crumpton said. “What can I do? I can’t turn a child away, I can’t tell a child they can’t get on the bus with us.”
So Crumpton, like Johnson and the park’s ubiquitous “Coach James,” James Bailey, who is head coach for every LaFollette Park Wildcats team, pays the fees for the children. Earlier this year, the team retired the jersey of former player Garrett Wolfe, who now plays for the Chicago Bears.
“We will never turn a kid away,” Johnson said. “So we get our money together and pay for them.”
Johnson joked that his wife was frustrated with the amount of money he spent on the children at the park. But, he said, he doesn’t have a choice.
“Every kid we can keep off the streets and off the corner, that’s a good thing,” Jones said.
The group said it had reached out to political leaders, asking for their support. So far only lieutenant governor candidate Sheila Simon had responded with an immediate letter of support. According to Johnson and Crumpton, several inquiries had been made to Ald. Emma Mitts’ office, a staff member promised that a response would come shortly, but the group had not heard back.
About halfway through the meeting, Bailey stepped in for a few minutes to thank those who had attended, then quietly excused himself. After the meeting ended, Bailey was sitting on the front steps of the field house with three young football players, joking with them as night fell.