As rain poured down by the bucketful outside of the Austin branch library, 5615 W. Race Ave., on April 30, volunteers and staff of A House in Austin nonprofit wondered if anyone would come to their Bagels and Books children’s book giveaway. Half an hour after the giveaway started, only a handful of people showed up. 

But even as the rain continued, more and more families started trickling in. Residents stopped by to grab books not just for their kids, but for friends’ and relatives’ kids. The volunteers were on hand to help them find the books that would be best for the kids’ ages. Many families brought their kids along and those kids happily hung around and read.

A House in Austin, which operates only a block east of the library, organized the event in order to promote literacy and get the word out about their activity and events. The volunteers came from the Chicago branch of Neuberger Berman, a New York City-based employee-owned asset management company.  

Rachel Rettberg, A House in Austin’s executive director, said that they are considering doing another book giveaway this summer, when, she hopes, the weather will be more agreeable.

A House in Austin was founded in 2016 by Erica and Bret Hilgart, an Oak Park couple. Erica Hilgart used to work as a Chicago Public Schools teacher and when she became a mother, she realized that there was a disparity in terms of resources parents had in Oak Park and Austin. Hilgart started organizing free classes and workshops for Austin families. 

The couple bought a literal house in Austin, near the intersection of Race and Pine streets, to serve as the organization’s permanent facility. When the renovations are completed, they will include classrooms for kids and parents, as well as therapy rooms and a library. As Hilgart previously told this newspaper, the idea is to create a space where Austin families can get access to resources and programs, as well a space where they can relax and feel safe. 

In February, Hilgart handed over the reins of her organization to Rettberg. She said that she felt that, in order for A House in Austin to grow as a non-profit, it needed an experienced, full-time executive director. And Rettberg, who previously served as CEO of Oak Park’s Wonder Works Children’s Museum, fit the bill, Hilgart said.

But the co-founder still helps out as a “super-volunteer,” Rettberg said. Rettberg explained that the interior renovations are still a work in progress. The city of Chicago still needs to issue the necessary permits. And while a significant portion of the funds necessary to complete the renovations and repairs has been raised, she said, the organization still needs to raise the balance, which they plan to do once the permits have been secured.

The book happened because of Jen Laird, Hilgart’s friend since college and one of A House in Austin’s long-time volunteers. Laird works at the Chicago office of Neuberger Berman.  

Drew Arneth, the company’s senior vice president and one of the volunteers who helped with the book giveaway, said that every year, Chicago office employees take the time out of their day to volunteer for a nonprofit that’s meaningful to one of the employees. Laird suggested A House in Austin.

“I want to continue to do more with them, because I believe in what they’re doing in the community,” Laird said. “I like that it’s bringing families together and giving them a safe space to spend time with [their] children.”

The volunteers filled three tables with books from a wide range of genres. While some books were aimed toward preschool kids, others were targeted to elementary school children. There were no limits on how many books each family could take, and Neuberger Berman volunteers were on hand to help the families find the books that were age-appropriate for their kids. Families were also free to get coffee, bagels and pastries. 

Monica Smith was one of the parents who came in after the half-hour mark with one of her daughters. 

“I just want my daughter to do well at reading,” Smith said. “Tonight, she will have a new book to read.”


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...