When you walk into the Family Focus building in Evanston’s 5th Ward, you might think you’re still in what the structure used to be … a school.
Children’s artwork covers the walls, and the room doors still look like entrances to classrooms.
But since the late 1970s, what used to be the Foster School has been Family Focus, a social services provider that took over the space after the school was closed in the face of a district-wide decline in enrollment.
It had for decades been the district’s only majority-Black school before being converted to a magnet school in the early 1970s.
On Thursday morning, U.S. Rep Jan Schakowsky (D-Evanston) presented Family Focus with a $1,130,845 “Community Projects” rehabilitation grant.
Schakowsky said members of Congress are allowed to choose 15 such projects. She said such grants “can really make a difference, and I wanted to make sure that Family Focus was on the list.”
Some of the money will go for immediate infrastructure needs in the building, such as heating and air conditioning upgrades, and making the restrooms handicapped-accessible.
The rest will go towards the agency’s estimated $12 million fund-raising goal, for a total rehab of the structure. New roofing, often a costly installation, is a possibility.
This latest grant, along with city and state money already pledged, brings Family Focus to about $5 million in house so far.
“It’s a beautiful building,” said Dara Munson, President and CEO of Family Focus.
“But it needs some love.”
In addition to its own programs, such as early childhood education, afterschool care, and immigrant services, Family Focus also houses 15 tenant agencies, such as the Infant Welfare Society of Evanston, which has a nursery for children of teenage mothers.
“We are committed to staying in the 5th Ward,” said director Stephen Vick, indicating support for the building rehab.
The check presentation was a homecoming of sorts for Rep. Schakowsky.
“I began my teaching career” at the old Foster School, in the 1960s, Schakowsky noted, as a “traveling teacher” who filled in at various Foster School rooms for a year.
Family Focus is a regional agency, with facilities in several Northern Illinois communities.
The Evanston center serves around 2,000 people per year.
The agency’s goal is to have all the revitalization work finished in 2026.
By then, the new 5th Ward School should be open next door, targeted for fall, 2025.
Munson said having the school, the Fleetwood-Jourdain Center, and Family Focus in the same area will mean there is a “Foster Campus.”
“We want to be a partner to our tenants and to the broader community,” she said, adding that perhaps Family Focus could provide before and after school programming for children attending the 5th Ward school nearby.
As a former Family Focus employee, I saw the difference our activities made on community members with young children. The centers are one of the few free, enjoyable, and supportive services for parents of young children. Thanks for sending funding their way, especially meaningful in the year the founder, Bernice Weisbourd, died. A fitting tribute.
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