By Nona Tepper
Empowering Gardens Inc. raised approximately $36,000 after Giving Tuesday this holiday season, with a "good portion" of funds being raised by the 50th reunion of the Oak Park and River Forest (OPRF) High School class of 1968. The Chicago-based Coleman Foundation also matched $10,000 worth of contributions.
"That was extraordinary for us," said Richard Biggins, Empowering Gardens' co-owner, who is also an alum of OPRF class of 1986. "Usually this time of year we're just cringing. Now we sleep better."
Empowering Gardens, a nonprofit that employs and supports people with disabilities, runs an outdoor garden center at 7730 Madison St. in Forest Park during the summer; in the winter, the nonprofit generally operates anywhere landlord friends donate space. For the second winter in a row, Art Sundry, the owner of caffe DeLuca, is allowing Empowering Gardens to operate at 7415 Madison St. in a space he owns.
But after receiving such a generous donation, Biggins said the nonprofit will, for the first time, be able to save to buy the land at 7730 Madison St., the cost of which he estimates as only rising thanks to new development. In April 2018, the Forest Park Village Council approved a four-story, mixed-use development at 7652 Madison St., a site formerly occupied by the Irish taverns Brian Boru's and Molly Malone's. The Northbrook-based Madison Avenue Real Estate Group, which is managed by Chicago White Sox and Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, will develop the space.
"There's been a lot of development at that end of town, so we're afraid that the cost of our ultimate goal of buying that property is going up as we sit. We've been pretty month-to-month since we began," Biggins said. "We get very lucky and so far people have donated space for us, which is basically free. That's very important, but a lot of what we're doing is keeping warm and making plans. What we're not doing is making very much money."
Biggins estimated the cost of the land at 7730 Madison St. to be "several hundred thousand dollars." Empowering Gardens is currently in year four of its five-year lease, leaving the nonprofit about 23 months to save enough to buy the land. He said he wasn't sure how much Empowering Gardens would be able to accumulate from donations — "at least $10,000," he said — but it represents the first-time the group has been able to save a substantial amount for the land.
"We better figure out a plan to buy it or somebody else with a lot of money is going to come and end our dream, and we certainly don't want that to happen," said Ana Solares, co-owner.
In the spring, Biggins said business at the outdoor garden center does "very well," increasing every year. But during the winter, he said, "It's almost like holding on for the rest of the year."
In early January, Empowering Gardens had a meeting with government officials about securing a grant to help buy the land — "Believe it or not, the greenhouse is probably going to cost a third of what the land to put it on is going to cost," Biggins said. The nonprofit is planning a fundraiser dedicated to the cause of buying the land sometime in "early spring."
"We want to be here, we have the whole community involved, and I think that's what it's about," Solares said. "It's about getting people with disabilities to talk to people without disabilities, to get to know each other, and people without disabilities to be aware that there are people who need some support."