Co-executive director Lynette Kelly-Bell (above) was one of parents who founded A House in Austin in 2016 to provide enriching programs and support for parents and children on Chicago’s West Side. | Alex Rogals

When Erica Hilgart moved to Oak Park as a mother of three young children, the former public school teacher enrolled in a Musikgarten class with her children.

“It helped me not feel so lonely in Oak Park,” Hilgart said. “I wondered if there was a place like this in Austin.”

Around the same time, young mothers and friends Lynette Kelly-Bell and Becky Martin, who lived on the West Side of Chicago, were looking for activities they could do with their young children.

“We couldn’t find anything on the West Side,” Kelly-Bell said. “Every parent and child class was in the South Loop or Edgewater.”

Children engage in early learning development activities while parents receive support during group. Children learn a gross and fine motor skill, in addition to imaginative play and a healthy snack to promote overall health development. | Courtesy A House In Austin

Seeing the void of opportunities, Hilgart reached out to the By the Hand Club, which offered up a room for her to host a music class.

“I created what I needed as a mom,” Hilgart said.

The first Boppin’ Babies music class took place in January 2016. Hilgart says that along with her child, a grandfather from the neighborhood attended with his grandson. The second class brought more participants, including mom Precious Jones. Over the first year, the class grew to include 14 parents.

Among those original parents were Martin and Kelly-Bell, who were thrilled to find something closer to home.

“Becky found this group that we could walk to,” Kelly-Bell said. “When we went, it was amazing. From that time on, I was committed.”

Growth happened organically that first year.

“Initially, it was the music piece with a literacy component,” Hilgart said. “Every week, families received breakfast and a book to bring home.”

Martin’s experience as a licensed social worker led to the addition of more parenting support programs.

“We added a home visit group, and a weekly parent support group meeting with childcare,” Hilgart said. “We partnered with Children Research Triangle to offer therapy and early intervention services.”

After borrowing space from other organizations, A House in Austin earned its name when the organization purchased the single-family home at 533 N. Pine Ave. in the summer of 2016.

Parents meet weekly for support groups to take time to recharge. Parents enjoy a meal and have an opportunity to meet other local parents, discuss important parenting topics, learn and be supported. | Courtesy A House In Austin

Hilgart says the large house was an ideal spot for the nonprofit organization to grow.  Instead of an institutional space, locating in a house fostered a sense of home. This house also provided a large backyard, key for providing the young children with outside time throughout the year.

Although the house had the potential they needed, former board member Maureen Hunter, who helped with the construction process, says that the old frame Victorian house needed significant restoration.

“It’s a magnificent home, but it’s just a vessel to provide an opportunity to these families,” Hunter said. “Not only was the size of the house a selling point, but so was the corner lot. Eighty-five percent of families in this neighborhood don’t have access to safe outdoor space.”

There was a long process to get a permit to convert the residential space to commercial space, and architectural firm Aria Group from Oak Park helped with the design, which included adding and an ADA-accessible bathroom, a ramp, fire protection and all new electrical, plumbing and HVAC systems.

Construction began in January 2020, and by the time it wrapped up that fall, the former single-family home had been transformed into a place where parents and children could gather for music, classes and support.

Hunter says that during the construction process, the team discovered a lot about the home’s history.  Built in 1897, the home was owned by the Frederick Glenn family from 1903 to 1978. Glenn, a co-founder of West Suburban Hospital, had his office in the home for 58 years.

A subsequent owner, Padraic Cunningham, a mental health specialist and therapist, also ran his practice from the home office. Hunter says relatives of Glenn and Cunningham have reached out to share photos and memories of the home.

A play area is seen on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022, at A House in Austin in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

“It just has a good history and a strong history of supporting the community that will live on through A House in Austin,” Hunter said.

Today, Kelly-Bell and Martin are co-executive directors of A House in Austin, and Jones serves as a music teacher and sits on the board of directors. Hilgart is happy to have handed the reins over to experienced parents who have been with the group from the beginning.

Kelly-Bell says that even through the pandemic, A House in Austin has continued to grow. Parent Café meets on Mondays as a time to offer parent support. On Tuesdays, there is a virtual and in-person Chicago Parent Program, a 12-session evidence-based parenting program for parents of kids between the ages of 2 and 8 designed to meet the needs of culturally and economically diverse parents.

February Tuesdays will feature My Fresh Table, a class on making healthy, affordable meals for families. Boppin’ Music for babies and toddlers meets on Wednesdays, and on Thursdays there is a Parent Chat and Fatherhood group.

All parent programming correlates with a My Wonder Kids art and reading class, so that parents and children both are learning and enjoying time with their peers at the same time.