Dialogue: A panel of Oak Park and Austin experts discuss issues. (Jennifer Wolfe/Contributor)

Jacqueline McCowan and, her husband, Ron, residents of Austin for 27 years, believe their West Side community has gotten a bad rap.

“Every community has its problems, but Austin is being portrayed as a problem, but it is really not,” said McCowan, who moved from Oak Park to Austin in 1986.

“It is a great community to live in,” she added. “People care about each other. We look after each other. When one is in trouble, we all try to come together to help out.”

But McCowan’s picture of Austin is not what’s makes the news. Headlines touting Austin as plagued with crime, strewn with vacant lots and low-performing schools don’t paint the whole picture. And that one-dimensional portrayal has many of Austin’s neighboring west suburban communities, including Oak Park, wondering.

“We see all these headlines about crime, but what is the real reality of Austin?” said Leonard Grossman, president of Community of Congregations, an interfaith organization serving Oak Park and River Forest. “There is more to Austin than crime.”

To get a clearer picture, Grossman’s organization brought stakeholders from both communities together for a forum Monday to learn more about each other. The event drew more than 100 residents to Ascension Catholic Church, 601 Van Buren St. in Oak Park, which hosted the event.

The forum didn’t focus on crime in Austin. Instead, it afforded opportunities to build new partnerships and expand existing ones. Organizations from both communities discussed their programs — ranging from job training, neighborhood beatification, youth sports to improving education.

“We need to get to know each other again,” Grossman said.

What they discovered is that they have more in common than most realize. Many social ills found in Austin are mirrored, to some degree, in Oak Park and other western suburbs. Homelessness, affordable housing and hunger are a few.

Michelle Zurakowski, of Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry, said the pantry serves 12 ZIP codes, including Austin. And while the word hunger is not often associated with Oak Park, Zurakowski said 5,400 Oak Park residents don’t know where their next meal is coming from. In Austin, it’s 34,000.

Zurakowski wants to partner with other Austin pantries to understand what’s needed to provide people with access to healthy foods.

Homelessness is another issue affecting both communities, said Lynda Schuler, executive director of West Suburban PADS. The agency provides services for the homeless in 21 western suburbs, including 70 Oak Park residents and 38 from Austin, Schuler said.

“There are a gamut of resources, but it is so important that we reach across those borders and help one another,” she said. “If we don’t, we do a disservice to the ones we serve.”

State Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-8th) believes Oak Park and Austin should have a symbiotic relationship, since only a street separates them. For that to happen, Ford said, disparities between the two communities must be recognized. He noted Oak Park has good schools, while Austin does not. Nor does Austin have a YMCA.

“It’s about Oak Park recognizing that if Austin is weak then so is Oak Park,” Ford said. “So I hope that this day bring us together.”

While no concrete actions plans came out of the meeting, Grossman said there are possibilities for future follow-up meetings. However, many in attendance stressed the importance of collaboration, including volunteering.

Dr. Andre Hines of Circle Family Healthcare Network (CFHCN) implored doctors, nurses and healthcare provides to volunteer at the agency’s community health centers.

“We filed Chapter 11 [bankruptcy] this year,” said Dr. Hines, CFHCN’s CEO. “That’s how tough financially it’s gotten for us. We reorganized, but we really need you to cross Austin [Boulevard] and come … help us out.”

Austin’s Fathers Who Care, a nonprofit supporting fathers, already has benefited from partnering with Oak Park businesses. In February, Oak Park’s Southtown Business Association held a clothing drive for the group.

Communicating each community’s needs and finding ways to partner around them can make a difference, said the Rev. Walter A. Jones Jr., Fathers Who Care’s founder and executive director.

However, Bethel New Life’s Edward Coleman wants to tap Oak Park’s business community. As a community development agency, Bethel New Life, offers several social-service programs including an entrepreneurial training program.

In April, the program graduated 27 of which 17 started new businesses. Coleman believes his fledgling entrepreneurs can learn a thing or two for the more established Oak Park businesses.

“We continuously need mentors,” Coleman said, noting that the agency’s entrepreneur program is the only small business development center on the West Side.

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