Young survey respondents said they need more unstructured time to hang out with friends.

After a deep and lengthy re-evaluation of its mission (and while weathering the second global pandemic in its 112-year history), the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club has come full circle. A survey of constituents, including children and youth served by the club, brought one message back — kids need more opportunity for free play. 

Different times, but it’s the same message that came across in 1908 to Professor Allan Hoben, a University of Chicago scholar. He owned a home at 55th Street and Blackstone Avenue, adjoining a tenement yard littered with trash and broken glass. According to a history compiled for HPNC in 1984, teens would come to the empty yard to play, and began to expand their turf into Hoben’s yard. They began erecting clubhouses. 

Hoben did not interfere. Instead, he installed a basketball hoop. He arranged with nearby Ray Elementary School to make space available in their basement for youth recreation; preference was given to families who couldn’t afford a membership at the local Y. In gratitude, the clubhouse-builders made Hoben an honorary member. In 1909 he organized his neighbors, and HPNC was born. 

Today as ever, the Neighborhood Club seeks to “be the space where kids have the freedom to play,” according to Development Director Chris Younkin-Wilson. Added Executive Director Angela Habr: “We offer safe and supervised spaces where kids can engage in structured and unstructured activities.” 

Another thing that hasn’t changed is the generosity of the Hyde Park community. The after-school programs, the athletics, the early-childhood offerings are all available to families regardless of ability to pay. “We couldn’t do that without our donors,” said Habr.

Traditionally HPNC’s annual fundraising dinner pulls in $100,000. Even last year, when it had to be held virtually, the donors came through. Habr and staff are gambling that they’ll come through again this year, even without the party. 

Plans for an October in-person gala were well along when the emergence of the COVID Delta variant convinced HPNC to change course. A live event seemed too risky. Sensing that people were tired of virtual parties, they decided to conduct their “Play On!” fund-raising campaign without a social event. 

It’s going on now, and you can donate here. 

If Habr’s assessment of community spirit is on target, the club’s future will look bright. The Betty Lou Smith Foundation has notched up its support by offering an unrestricted matching grant: All donations made by the end of 2021, up to $100K, will be doubled. 

Reopening in the wake of a pandemic isn’t easy. While Habr is proud of the fact that HPNC never closed its doors, the pandemic did force a drastic cutback in programs, and fee revenue dropped accordingly. 

And now that in-person activities are safer, they face a new challenge: the countrywide scarcity of staff willing to return to work in the poorly paid field of child and youth services. 

Nevertheless, in-person activities have been returning bit by bit, with capacities limited only by the staffing shortage. Rigorous COVID protocols prohibit parents and caregivers from waiting in the building, masks are required,and all visitors are carefully screened. But in other ways, things are returning to normal. Early childhood activities went indoors in person in September — two days a week, with a third to come in November. Indoor athletics for K-8 also came back last month: basketball classes happen four times weekly, and there’s roller derby on Saturdays. 

The open gym for older teens lost its funder during the pandemic. But another nonprofit called Acclivus has stepped up, enabling teens to dribble and dunk again in the new program year. 

After-school activities for K-8 are also back indoors and in-person. But because of the staff shortage, there is a waitlist to enroll — the result both of lowered capacity at HPNC and of higher demand. A number of local schools, unable to cope with the staff scarcity, canceled their after-hours programming. Families were given scant notice and had to scramble. 

The quiet of quarantine allowed ample time for reflection, and HPNC didn’t waste it. Their spring Community Survey, said Habr, “helped us to think strategically toward our future. We want to make sure we’re serving people what they need and want.” 

There were 148 respondents, 28 of whom were youth served by the club. The latter were read most eagerly. There was considerable interest in learning more about science, and cooking. And, unshockingly, young respondents said their favorite things to do are to hang out with friends and talk, and to run around and play. 

According to Younkin-Wilson, these fundamental pastimes are getting harder and harder for kids to come by. He spoke of a child who recently had a minor meltdown: “I asked him about his day. He was going from school, to (structured) after-school, to basketball, to bed.” Not a minute left for him to set his own agenda, and he was five years old. 

“All the research points to the importance of unstructured play for kids,” said Habr.

As for adult respondents: They want to play, too. They want to socialize with each other while their kids have fun. Many told of other neighborhood activities in which their families participate. These reports will help HPNC to establish more partnerships with other local nonprofits — like the one with the Kenwood School of Ballet. Kids can now take a dance class at HPNC while siblings play basketball. In like manner, adults and other caregivers can take a boot-camp exercise class while keeping one eye on the Tot Lot. 

Staff were not surveyed, but they’ve been the focus of much attention during HPNC’s self-examination. “We’ve been looking hard at how we can be a better, more compassionate employer,” said Habr. Unlike employees at many nonprofits, club staff get generous amounts of sick time. Benefits are still a dream, “but we’re looking into the issue.” Paid time off was recently extended even to brand-new hires, and paid holidays were added. Professional development is a priority: “We want to make sure (our staff) feel equipped and successful in their roles.”

Parents caught in the child-care crunch may benefit from HPNC’s referral service. Sarah Diwan, who preceded Habr as executive director, has returned to her original focus as an early-childhood expert. She conducts free informational meetings for parents every month, and private consultations by appointment for a small fee. Innovative arrangements such as nanny-sharing have helped many families. 

For more information, to donate, or to register your child for programs at HPNC, visit their website.

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