From time to time, Larry Piekarz and his staff at the park district strike gold in trying to provide that cool program kids flock to. They’ve also cancelled different activities because no one participates.
Still worse, said Piekarz, is when his attempts to ask a few loitering teens what they might want to do is met with a barrage of four-letter words.
“If they would just partake, they might actually have a lot of fun,” Piekarz, the executive director of the parks, said.
Prompted in part by a plea from neighborhood residents to curb rowdy, adolescent behavior, public officials across town are exploring what type of programming and funding might be available to help. Forest Park does not have a central location where teens can connect with each other and their community, but there is a smorgasbord of offerings as different agencies attempt to capture their attention. The library, the school district, the municipality and the parks all have various levels of teen-oriented programs.
Focusing those multiple efforts into a single project, such as a teen center, appears to be the developing strategy. But adults are forcing themselves to answer a question that their sons and daughters would never ask them. What is cool?
“That’s the thing about that age,” said Mary Win Connor, head of the Forest Park Youth Commission. “It’s about what’s cool.”
The youth commission has relied largely on fundraisers and partnerships to offer a sporadic menu of activities. The group operates on an annual budget of only a few thousand dollars and has no official authority within the village. Nevertheless, Connor said the volunteers who make up the commission share a greater responsibility than any other in Forest Park to provide an outlet for teens. To that end, commission member Rachell Entler visited a teen center in Oak Park to get a sense of what works, and what’s needed to pull it off. She also plans to make stops in St. Charles, Niles, Hillside, Maywood and other communities.
“One of the biggest things teens want is some place to hang out,” Entler said. “A drop-in center where, on a Wednesday afternoon they can come in and not necessarily have to sign up for a program.”
Piekarz, too, said he has found the loosely structured offerings at the park district to be the most attractive for teenagers. The skate park, the outdoor rink and an ultimate Frisbee league each provide a supervised environment, but the kids make most of the decisions, he said. Giving teens some responsibility for how various programs operate has proved worthwhile, said Piekarz.
Mayor Anthony Calderone agreed there are still a great number of details to discuss, but he is particularly interested in what would be offered at a teen center if it were opened.
“I think generally everybody is thinking teen center,” Calderone said. “The component I think we’re missing is, what do you do after you open the building.”
The logistics of getting to opening day are daunting, as well. Commissioner Rory Hoskins fully supports the effort and likes the idea of renovating a vacant village-owned property at 1000 Beloit. But, he said, it will take at least $300,000 to bring the structure into a usable state.
Village Administrator Mike Sturino confirmed that figure is the bare minimum needed to rehab the property.
Further, talk of opening a center on Madison Street is meeting resistance in the business community there, he said, because entrepreneurs are afraid of inviting problems to the neighborhood. The growing amount of vacant storefront space on Madison at least makes the street an attractive option for a temporary location, he said.
Hoskins and the mayor met earlier this month with an assistant professor in the social work department at Loyola University. They’re hopeful that Loyola will be able to provide grant funding for a teen center in Forest Park and have scheduled another meeting for Nov. 17. Representatives from the school district and other agencies are expected to join them.
Efforts to contact the Loyola professor for comments on the meetings were unsuccessful.
All of these discussions are still in their early stages, and there are more questions than answers at this point. Those places that already provide some level of service to adolescents agree that the community has a responsibility to its youth, but there’s an emerging point of view that says parents may need help as well. Several of the residents who have asked village commissioners to get involved said that ultimately, the goal has to be to provide a nurturing environment for these teens.
Back at the park district, though, Piekarz said he can look out his window and see parents shuttling their children to his sidewalk.
“It’s kind of sad,” Piekarz said. “We see kids get dropped off in the morning and then picked up at night.”