St. John Lutheran Church and the West Cook YMCA recently signed a five-year agreement allowing the Y to use space in St. John’s school for before- and after-school programming. The space had been empty for three years.

Rev. Leonard Payton, St. John’s pastor, said the newly formed partnership will enable the Y to use the entire second and third floors of their building including classrooms, the gym, office space and kitchen for the 90 children already registered for what is being called the Y-Kids program. Next June, the Y plans to also utilize the former science room for programming.

The first floor of the school is still available to the church for their own programs.

Phil Jimenez, CEO of West Cook YMCA in Oak Park, said local school superintendents told them pre-school is not needed as much as before- and after-school care for older children.

The Y identified that need in most of the near-west suburbs, and St. John had the space.

One reason for parents’ loyalty, Jimenez said, is that the Y has the only program in the area which allows parents to pick up their children as late as 7 p.m. Parents can drop their children off at the St. John site as early as 7 in the morning.

St. John is not trying to make a lot of money from the relationship.

“It’s not like the revenues from the Y are pouring into the general fund of St. John to support the operation of the church,” said Payton with a smile. “We don’t want to make a profit, but neither can we can we afford to take much of a loss. We want to keep the building in good repair for the well-being of our community.”

Jimenez said using a resource in Forest Park to meet a need that exists in many communities beyond Oak Park is part of a strategy he calls YWOW: Y Without Walls. 

District 91 Supt. Louis Cavallo said before- and after-school child care is not a critical issue in the district. “We have over 100 kids at the elementary level in the park district and Community Center programs,” he noted.

But they are collaborating with the Y on adding summer programing to what is already being offered locally. “The YMCA has reached out to us to assess our needs,” Cavallo said. “I have been working with Mr. Jimenez on providing a high-quality summer program that allows students to receive intervention and enrichment over the summer when school is not in session.”

When the Y reached out to St. John, the congregation was still grieving the closing of their beloved school, which has been in its present location since 1913. 

“A big problem for us,” Payton explained, “is that we reside in a neighborhood that’s very different from when we moved here over a hundred years ago. A lot of the people who move in don’t automatically have a connection to us, so we’re in effect invisible to them.”

The vote, according to Payton, to go ahead with the new commitment was almost unanimous.

The West Cook YMCA board of directors used the summer camps held at St. John for the last two summers as a kind of trial period in which both groups could see if they would “mix well.” 

Both Rev. Payton and Jimenez described the partnership as an example of the amazing things a church and a nonprofit can do when their main desire is to serve the community.

“I am grateful for the work that the YMCA does,” Payton said. I am very glad that we are able to collaborate at this level. This is good for us and for our community. The more of this kind of thing that happens, the better.”