Last July, Erica and Bret Hilgart, of Oak Park, bought a house in Austin hoping to turn it into a permanent space for a nonprofit they started a few months earlier. Now, they’re trying to raise $200,000 to renovate the building. The couple plans to use the money to build classrooms, counseling and therapy spaces, a community library and a laundry room. 

A GoFundMe campaign they started last month had raised nearly $5,000 as of Aug. 26. They intend to keep raising the money until they come up with the amount they need. 

The nonprofit, called A House in Austin, came out of Erica’s experience as a former Chicago Public Schools teacher and an Oak Park parent. 

Hilgart said that reflecting on her experience raising children in Oak Park got her to thinking about the challenges facing some West Side families — and the sheer scale of the advantages in resources and support that families in Oak Park have over those in Austin. So Hilgart and her husband decided to do something about this. 

Hilgart reached out to Donnita Travis, the executive director of By The Hand Club for Kids. Travis agreed to let Hilgart teach a music class on Wednesdays for parents and their kids, called the Boppin’ Babies & Toddles, at the organization’s Austin location. The classes started in January 2016 and have continued ever since.

Since then, though, Hilgart has been trying to do more. A few months after setting up at By The Hand, she added a Parent Chat Hour to her Wednesday classes. 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 Feb. 2017, the duo held the first in a series of monthly community workshops for Austin families at the Austin branch library.

The classes got the Hilgarts to thinking about a permanent facility to house their budding nonprofit. They eventually purchased a house near Pine and Central Avenues. From the get-go, they knew that the building would need extensive renovations, but that hasn’t kept them from ruminating on the home’s potential.

“The classroom will have an atelier, which is a space where children have access to many different types of media to express themselves,” Erica said. “The materials include components from nature – sticks, flowers, leaves, rocks, shells, clay, paint, glue, oil pastels, odds and ends of recyclable objects.”

Hilgart said that the space will be deliberately designed to reflect her nonprofit’s approach to childhood learning and creativity.  

“We’ll design the classroom space to reflect the Reggio Emilia-inspired approach we’re taking to early childhood education,” Hilgart said. “The Reggio Emilia approach believes children express themselves through ‘hundred languages’ so music, movement, gardening, and drama are also ways our children will be able to communicate their ideas.” 

The building’s sunroom will be turned into a parent education space, she added. The first floor’s small breakfast nook will have chairs and a couch to encourage “intimate conversations.” On the second floor, the bedrooms will be converted into art classrooms.

“The upstairs bedrooms will be combined to create an art studio space for parent-child art classes as well as adult art therapy sessions,” Hilgart said. 


Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...