By this time next month, the A House in Austin nonprofit organization is hoping to start holding classes at a house in Austin they can call their own. The nonprofit also recently a new executive director.
On July 6, 2016, Oak Park couple Erika and Bret Hilgart bought the two-story house at 533 N. Pine Ave. They envisioned it as not only a place where their burgeoning nonprofit could hold classes for Austin kids and adults, but as a resource for the Austin community, in general. But actually raising the money to renovate the building took time, and so did the renovations. The COVID-19 pandemic added its own complications.
On Sept. 12, A House in Austin held a ribbon-cutting, inviting the community to take a look inside the house, get some free ice cream and find out what the nonprofit has to offer. The kids taking classes got to cut the ribbon. The nonprofit still needed to touch up the interiors and bring in furniture, but they expect to start offering classes within the next 30 to 60 days.
Because of the COVID-19 restrictions, the class sizes will be limited and they will be taking several precautions to try to keep everyone safe, but A House in Austin hopes to be able to open to full capacity this spring.
Erika was inspired to start A House in Austin by her experiences teaching at West Humboldt Park's Brian Piccolo Elementary Specialty School and her own struggles raising her three kids. Those experiences made her appreciate how important it was for parents to have support, especially in communities where they don't have access to the resources Oak Parkers take for granted.
Before the pandemic, A House in Austin had been music, yoga and dance classes, many of which involved parents and kids working together. The organization also provided support groups. While the house was renovated, many of the classes and group sessions were held at the neighboring Original Providence Baptist Church, 515 N Pine Ave.
Since the pandemic, the nonprofit has held most of its classes online and hosted music classes in the yard of an instructor's home. Erika added that they've also done virtual home visits to support families, collaborated with 40 Acres Fresh Market on family meal packages, and distributed toys and supplies to families.
A House in Austin hired Jacquelyn Dortch, who grew up in Austin and currently lives in northwest suburban Mt. Prospect, as the new executive director. She said she has 25 years of experience working for nonprofits focused on child welfare, education and juvenile justice, and she wanted to work for a nonprofit that tried to address some of the inequity she witnessed in Austin.
"We're really excited and we're looking forward to really becoming a staple in the community," Dortch said. "It's about rewriting the tale of two cities and providing support, and nurturing support, in this community."
In addition to hosting A House in Austin's own programming, the nonprofit plans to work with other Austin nonprofit organizations and service providers who may not have space of their own.
Dortch explained that they don't want to duplicate what already exists, adding that it was important for them to try to give Austin families an opportunity to access services without having to worry about transportation.
"A lot of programs for families are outside the community and we're right smack dab in the middle of the community," she said.
Austin artist Vannessa Stokes is A House in Austin's newest board member, having joined earlier this month. She aid she was excited to be part of the nonprofit.
"A House in Austin is about creating stronger families and engaging and empowering people," she said, adding that she's familiar with the issues affecting Black families, especially the ones living on the West side.
River Forest village trustee and village president candidate Patty Henek, who has been on the nonprofit's board since its creation, said that she's originally from Austin and has always had a "soft spot" for anything that helps the community. She said she was impressed by Erika's willingness to make an investment and trusts that A House in Austin will receive more financial support.
"It's been a long time coming, trying to get the house open," Henek said. "I'm super excited that Austin residents are going to be able to participate in the program in their own community."
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