An Oak Park couple are looking to bring more resources and activities for families living on the eastern side Austin Boulevard.

Erica and Bret Hilgart have established A House in Austin, a non-profit aimed at helping parents nurture and support their children. They are hoping to convert a house they recently purchased, which is near the intersection of Race and Pine Avenues, into a programming space they can call their own. For the time being, however, they are using venues throughout the neighborhood.

Since January 2016, the couple has been offering programming at By The Hand Club. On Feb. 4, they held the first in the series of monthly community workshops in the Austin branch library’s second-floor auditorium space. While the workshop started off slowly, more and more families trickled in.

Before the couple moved to Oak Park, Erika Hilgart was a Chicago Public Schools teacher at Brian Piccolo Elementary Specialty School, a West Humboldt Park neighborhood elementary school. She said that teaching there gave her a better understanding of Austin, in particular, and the West Side, in general.

After she moved to Oak Park, she found herself struggling to raise three children. She eventually realized how much support good parenting requires. While Austin has many community organizations that help families, she discovered that there are still many resources that are lacking.

“We live in Oak Park, but I believe that every neighborhood deserves, every child deserves to have the same opportunities to go to music class, to an art class. Your zip code shouldn’t determine [what’s available],” she said.

Hilbert reached out to Donnita Travis, executive director of By the Hand Club for Kids, who agreed to let her teach the Boppin’ Babies & Toddles, a music class for parents and their kids.

“We started out with one family, a grandfather and his grandson, and now we have 14 families and 16 children,” Hilgart said.

The classes are held on Mondays and Wednesdays at By the Hand’s Austin location, 415 N Laramie Ave. As the winter of 2016 started, she added one feature to Wednesday classes: a Parent Chat Hour. Rebekah Martin, a social worker who Hilgart met through the class, leads discussions about parenting styles and their impact on the kids, as well as conflict resolution techniques.

In May 2016, they officially established A House in Austin. As Bert Hilgart explained, he handles the business side of the non-profit and helps his wife when necessary.

In July 6, 2016, the couple bought a house to serve as the organization’s permanent facility. They are still raising money to renovate it, but once they do, they are looking to offer more classes.

“We will have parent workshops, a parent support group focusing on prenatal care, and the New Mothers support group, as well as [additional] parent-child classes in music and art,” Erica Hilgart said.

Her husband said that his wife likes that the building has a backyard space, which the couple hopes to use for the benefit of the families and the community once the renovations are over.

Bret Hilgart said that they are cautiously optimistic that they will be able to open the building this year.

“We’re very hopeful that we can start [renovations] early this summer, so that by the start of the fall semester we can take full advantage,” he said.

His wife said she already knows the first employee she will hire once the building opens — Lykisha Carter, a By the Hand volunteer who’s been helping her out with the classes since the beginning.

In the meantime, they have launched a series of monthly worships designed to provide engaging activities for local families. The first workshop focused on health. Erin Conner, an instructor at CorePower Yoga, taught a yoga class for parents and kids.

After she finished her lesson, she recommended a local option for families that want to continue. Saturday morning yoga classes are held at PCC Austin Family Health Center from 10:00 a.m. to 11:15 a.m.

Sheryl Munoz, founder and executive director at Oak Park’s Sugar Beet Co-op, taught kids how to make healthy snacks from vegetables. Martin gave a workshop on setting family goals. She said the group will review those goals in six months to see how many families actually stuck with them.

The next workshop, which will be held on March 11, at 2:00 p.m., will focus on the science of rocks and the Earth’s crust. 

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