Palos Park institution hopes to reopen in June
By Dermot Connolly
The Center in Palos Park has been closed to the public for two months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and administrators are busy working on ways to safely reopen as many of its programs and activities as possible when state stay-at-home orders are lifted, hopefully at the end of May.
“Our situation is, we have been shut down since March 13. We planned to be shut for a week but then the stay-at-home orders came down,” said Dave Sanders, executive director of The Center at 12700 Southwest Highway.
The Center, an interfaith non-profit religious organization founded by Sanders’ grandparents in 1932, offers a wide range of diverse activities on the property centered around the Wayside Chapel and the Children’s Farm. These include a school for children from 3 years old up to third grade, the Pathways residential addiction recovery program, as well everything from art classes to summer camps.
“I asked my staff to take a 50 percent pay cut, and then on April 1, I had to furlough 18 full-time and part-time employees,” said Sanders.
A lot of spring events had to be canceled, including all the popular Easter programs, and all the class trips planned. The traditional Easter Sunrise service was held online.
“This was the first time in 84 years we did not have people here for that,” said Sanders.
“We have a skeleton staff now. We have animals to feed on The Farm,” said Sanders. The working farm includes livestock such as cattle, horses, pigs and goats, as well as chicken and ducks.
Pathways is the only program that has remained open, because as Sanders said, the 15 men currently going through it and living onsite “have nowhere else to go. What we do here is the complete opposite of social distancing.”
While no cases of COVID-19 have been reported at The Center, he said “we are quarantining here in this house,” similar to any traditional household.
The men work on the farm and participate in online 12-step meetings as well as meeting with alumni of the program.
One source of income to The Center, in addition to donations, comes from the sale of meat raised on the farm through the SAGE program (Sustainable Agriculture, Green Education). But that has been temporarily suspended as well. The last sale was held last week, and Sanders doesn’t expect to have another until September or October.
He noted that The Center did receive a grant from the Payroll Protection Program, which will allow employees to be paid through June.
“On April 1, we put out an appeal (for financial help) online. We wrote to 850 people who have been involved with us and we have had an overwhelming response. From people in the community as well as people we don’t even know,” said Saunders.
“If everyone comes through with their monthly pledges, we should be viable through June,” said Sanders.
“What happens after that is up in the air,” said development director Mark Walker. “And we realize a lot of people are in the same situation.”
“We put together an emergency budget for six months, from July to December. But it is very difficult. We’re keeping a close eye on the decisions made at the state level, but it gives you a headache considering all the possibilities,” said Walker.
“We have to plan for everything, looking at three different paths and nine different outcomes,” he said.
“The big unknown is how we are going to open things like summer camp. It will take some navigation. The rules right now are pretty vague. We are keeping a close eye on what Gov. Pritzker says.” said Sanders.
“We think we can open our farm up (in June), to give families a place to go. We might have small art classes with less than six people. The goal is to do things safely for everyone, within the social distancing guidelines. Hopefully, our annual rummage sale will go ahead (in late August).” said Walker.
“It should be bigger than ever because we already have a lot of stuff people donated for us to sell,” he said.
The latest updates on plans for opening, as well as videos of remarks by Sanders and reflections by the Rev. Chris Hopkins at the Wayside Chapel are posted on the website at www.thecenterpalos.org.