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Bring Back Firehouse Youth Center

Mother of an autistic child explains why programs should be restored.

There are few things I hate more than public speaking. However, on June 13 at the , even though the room was almost empty, my voice shook as I pleaded that the council reinstate the cuts made to the Firehouse Youth Center by the last administration. 

These cuts included the middle school summer program and days off and early release supervision during the school year.  

Why am I so passionate about the Firehouse? It accomplishes so much with so little. In the past decade, Highland Park has built huge glory projects such as the Water Park and Recreation Center.  Now we are suddenly cost conscious when it comes to the services the Firehouse offers.

If you’ve been to the Firehouse, you’ll know that it is retro, charming and homey as opposed to sleek, modern and expensive. When you walk in, you feel the camaraderie among the middle schoolers the Youth Center serves. Whether these kids have decided to hang out there because they don’t want to be in an empty home after school, or their parents have decided they are not ready to go unsupervised, the Firehouse provides a laid back environment for kids to make the transition from grammar school coddling to high school independence.  

My son Henry attends the Firehouse. Since Henry has autism, I met with two of the Firehouse staff members at the beginning of the year to discuss his needs. What was so refreshing was their positive attitude that he would fit in. There was no need to call in special facilitators or run tests. Everyone talks about seeing your child as a person and not a diagnosis, but the Firehouse staff naturally did just that. 

I signed up for the Firehouse because of the homework help, but the social opportunities it offered were a dream come true. I can’t convey the elation I felt when I’d walk in to pick up Henry and would see him playing video games at age level with other kids.  Whereas other parents detest video games, I praise them as the great equalizer for the uncoordinated child. Kids never wanted to have play dates with Henry since he is different, yet the youth center kids were playing with him because they enjoyed it. I still can’t get use to it.

Who else does the Firehouse serve besides one kid on the autism spectrum? Kids from Fort Sheridan, kids from English as a second language homes, single parent households and low, moderate, and middle-income families that really need this service in a tough economy.  

What do I do next? I went to the City Council. I’ve written a guest editorial for the Patch. Would it help if I tied myself to the Firehouse or went on a hunger strike? Neither is plausible since Henry needs me and I failed Weight Watchers. I am at a loss.

If Character really Counts in Highland Park, then the Firehouse’s full services will be restored.

Resident June 17, 2011 at 09:54 PM
As a recent HPHS graduate who did not utilize the resources of the Firehouse (and hopefully turned out just fine), I felt compelled to comment in response to your column. While I sympathize with your frustrations, I feel this is somewhat sensationalistic. The Firehouse is not gone; it still exists, and it still offers an embarrassment of riches to a considerably narrow segment of our community. For the vast, vast majority of communities across the United States, a service like the Firehouse--even in its "amputated" state--would be unimaginable. I recognize the value of the Firehouse and similar social services, but the Firehouse is a luxury, not a right, and to equate it with qualified social workers and pathologists in our school system (as one commenter did) seems rather petty. Additionally--and I say this as the perspective of someone with an autistic sibling--I want to point out that the Firehouse isn't especially valuable or beneficial to all kids with special needs. Your child may be well-served there; not all are. I understand your particular frustrations, but that doesn't change the fact that the column comes off as slightly unfair in its characterization of city government. The cuts to the Firehouse program were hardly some conspiratorial hate crime directed towards disabled children. Social services are an important part of what makes Highland Park what it is, but in neglecting our good fortune, we lose sight of--and appreciation for--our privilege.
Nancy Rotering June 17, 2011 at 11:28 PM
Thank you to Jill Goldstein and to all who have commented.     The Firehouse Youth program is an integral part of our community. Working with the Council, the Park District, area non-profits who serve community youth and with citizens including Jill, our goal is to have a satisfactory resolution as quickly as possible.   At the time of the budget workshops, it was our understanding that these services duplicated those offered by the Park District.  In light of Jill's statement to the Council, we have requested information from the Park District and have asked that a member of the Park District Board meet with the City Council to resolve this matter.   We are committed, as always, to coordinating the important community services that define our city.
Mary June 18, 2011 at 02:01 AM
My son went to Firehouse every day. My oldest loved the day trips. My youngest took a babysitting class and used the job board. I was so glad the service was available when my kids needed it. I've recommended it to new neighbors with kids that age. I know they made sure to have the right textbooks available from District 112. It would just be a shame if we don't fully utilize this community asset.
Lucy L. June 18, 2011 at 02:58 AM
Nancy. As a single parent I strongly disagree with the statement that these services are duplicated by the park district. Please tell me where they are duplicated for that age group at that cost.
Lucy L. June 18, 2011 at 03:19 AM
Your "understanding" was based on data I assume. If you have that data please share it with those of us who need these services to raise our children. I expected to have a child utilize the cut programs this summer and I did not find equal services offered elsewhere. Oh, and I used data. 1. Quality - it is the only place I am aware of that is uniquely positioned to serve our middle schoolers. 2. Social/emotional learning- was consciously integrated in programing, 3. Cost - was less than park district and JCYS. 4. Invested relationships in youth - the staff makes a point to develop relationships over summers and middle-school years. Relationships with adults have been consistently proven to be the most important intervention in positive youth development (Search Institute and PBIS to name a couple of research based programs that are recommended by ISBE). Oh, and as far as the idea that the programs be housed under the park district, why would we give a fiscally responsible program to the greatest financial embarrassment this town has seen in my lifetime? I am happier when I ignore the politics in this town, too hurtful to watch close up.
Resident June 18, 2011 at 04:12 AM
Our middle schools are also uniquely positioned to serve our middle schoolers, and that's more than most communities can say.
Todd Grayson June 18, 2011 at 04:30 AM
I will tell you that you can equate social workers and respite services (which is what the Fire House apparently does not serve anymore) together, becuase they are both needed by families who need those services. And while my son who is both autistic and has other issues, and does not use the firehouse, others do. And each family needs different services to suit their needs. Thus the IEP's in school, and different private and public sources of support. NSSED has had cuts, NSSD 112 has had cuts, the state almost eliminated a large chunk of services for special needs children and adults, the list goes on. It is not a large voting block. For families who can not have full time day care (whether they are special needs or not) the Fire House has been a part of their community. So "resident", I am sorry you are not brave enough to put your name on you post, and sorry you have not yet learned the true meaning of "community". We all pay for things we don't need ourselves or use ourselves, and others pay for things we use and they don't. And, yes its harder when the economy is slow. Its how we share as adults. It's not a "handout" for lazy people. And for people who need respite services - I can tell you it is no luxury, its a need. Also, your use of the term "conspiratorial hate crime" is also an extrapolati0n of others comments. As a recent HPHS grad you should understand that word, they teach it there.
Lucy L. June 18, 2011 at 04:48 AM
The point of the article was that The Firehouse offers services when middle school is closed. Summer, after school and days off. It would be great if dist. 112 offered more after-school options, for 6-8 students, as many other districts do. STARS is a program utilized throughout the state offering homework help and recreational activities at middle schools. It would be great if 112 became more involved in similar programing. As an educator in another district I would have to disagree with the second part of your statement. Yes, Highland Park middle schools do a great job, and so do many other town's middle schools.
Todd Grayson June 18, 2011 at 04:49 AM
It sounds like the original decision was made with incomplete information, as many budget decisions unfortunately have to get made in a time of declining revenues. Its great that you are willing to have the City revisit the issue.
Resident June 18, 2011 at 04:58 AM
Mr. Grayson, Your use of dog-whistles like "handouts for lazy people" is a straw man argument. In no way did I imply--nor do I believe--that people who use the Firehouse are mooching off our community. I'm proud to live in a community where we have youth centers, access to sexual health resources for teens, career services, ESL programs, etc. That's what makes Highland Park a great place to live. Instead of seeing a return to the status quo as the only solution, why not encourage the Firehouse to partner with more community organizations, thus enabling it to serve more middle schoolers in the community? To me, making sure all middle schoolers can use Firehouse services is more important than making sure the building remains open on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I simply think it's important to remember that the existence of a place like the Firehouse is the exception, not the norm, and that no matter what services are offer, we are incredible lucky to have them. (Also, many Patch commenters use common first names as their handles. Does than make them more brave than I? It's unwarranted remarks such as these that really teach me the meaning of community.)
Lucy L. June 18, 2011 at 05:14 AM
Jill, It seems that many of us agree with you. How about a meeting of like-minded adults? I would say that this is a critical issue to many, and I would make it a priority in my future voting. I would be happy to add my voice to yours and I commend your positive leadership in this area.
Jill June 18, 2011 at 01:22 PM
This is geared to "resident".. Our middle schools are gravely lacking in social/emotional support services. I don't want to lose focuse on what the original article was intended to convey, but clearly you didn't attend Edgewood. You clearly weren't a student there when there was an 8th grade 'bull/rap session' with then principal Carolyn Hendriks ( who was terrific) and several students went up to the microphone to thank the guidance counselor at that time for saving their lives after they tried to commit suicide. Middle school is a nightmare for many kids. They are trying to fit in and there are many square pegs who just can't, or chose not to. Middle schools serve middle school kids, but they can do better but they clearly can't do it all.
Jill Goldstein June 18, 2011 at 01:27 PM
I am so pleased that the Mayor and City Council or going to revisit this issue. I believe once it is reexamined they will see what a critical function the Firehouse Youth Serves. I look forward to participating in the conversation. I really appreciate the response.
Todd Grayson June 18, 2011 at 01:34 PM
Resident - I do not believe the "handout" term was quite as excitable as the "hate crime" term. My original comment discussed sharing responsibility between the City and Park District, which is not a return to the status quo. A later comment discussed the Township, which does focus on social services - and other groups should and could be included. And as for the "handle" comment - well, its just easier to know where someone is coming when they use their own name. The former mayor has no issue with strong statements under his name. This is not national politics where people can be afraid of retribution for free speech. We really are just a small town, and a great one at that - pimples and all. Most of my comments towards you were focused on the thought of standing in someone elses shoes when looking at an issue which effects others. Your original comment seemed more focused on your own family experiences rather than Ms. Goldstein's or others needing daycare or respite services.
Lucy L. June 18, 2011 at 02:51 PM
I agree with much of Mr. Grayson's statement above, particularly the statement about standing in the shoe's of another. That said, I am happy that we have young people who take an interest in local politics, so as much as I disagree with "Resident" I appreciate the added debate. FYI - I choose to protect my name on this site because I had a friend threatened when they gave their full name on Patch. We might be a small town, but it 'aint Mayberry. Also, we seem to assume that we do things better than other towns. Hubris - yeah, I learned that word at HPHS, back in the day. Please note, my job requires that I compare social/emotional educational programing across the state and then bring evidence based programing to a neighboring district. The data I look at covers schools, park districts and social services. I feel well qualified to say HP does ok in these areas, but a would hesitate to say we are leaders. The fact that my job does not exist in the 112/113 school system shows that we do not take social/emotional growth as seriously as other communities. BTW - ISBE requires that social/emotional learning be taught to standards through general education in grades k-12. I actively look for this in the education my children receive and see little evidence that it is being done in a way that meets the standards. What was missing in the HP schools I saw in action at The Firehouse. They when beyond meeting the states expectations and should be rewarded for that, not punished.
Lucy L. June 18, 2011 at 03:20 PM
I do hope Nancy replies to my request and informs us where these comparable services are. I wasn't being funny, I need them. I am a life-time HPer. I have paid into the tax base at different levels and I volunteer in the community as often as I can. For all the talk of this being a diverse town, I sometimes think that we have lost our middle class. I feel that rich run this town for the benefit of the rich, with a few bones thrown to the lower income members. I can't prove it, but I assume that our council members rarely if ever NEEDED to utilize services like the Firehouse. The cost of running for office in this town would indicate that finances are not an issue for any of them. When my children's father became so ill that he could no longer parent I became acutely aware of respite services. I am in a different place now, but I will never forget the kindness extended to my family by 3 different HP social services (The Firehouse being one). The other two I utilized charged me at a sliding scale rate. When the medical bills were high I paid the lowest rate, as I recovered financially I paid a higher rate. I don't think that the Firehouse did sliding scale, but it has been a couple of years since I had a kid there. I wanted my incoming 6th grader to attend this summer, but that program was cut. I would suggest that The Firehouse consider a sliding scale model (if that is not the current model). It is an equitable and opens the doors to all families.
francine ephraim June 18, 2011 at 03:54 PM
Lucy - If others are interested and if the city is willing to work with us, I'd be happy to attend a meeting of like-minded adults. I agree that the Firehouse fills a need that I don't see other agencies or non-profits filling. I love your sliding scale idea. I proposed other ideas to the City Council in the last term. Some of those ideas were aimed at cutting costs. Some were aimed at raising funds. The question I am still left with is "How much money is necessary to run the program in its full capacity and how much is being saved now by cutting certain programming?" As Jill mentioned, it seems like the Firehouse offers a lot of good for not a huge sum of money. It does serve a variety of middle-school students with varying needs or whose families have different needs. So let's pull together as a community and make sure these programs (day off and early dismissal day programming) are restored for this coming school year and that the summer program is restored for next summer.
Resident June 18, 2011 at 05:43 PM
@Mr. Grayson and Lucy L., I appreciate the insight toward stepping in the shoes of others. I've just chosen to step in the shoes of the millions of American children who do not have local community centers at their disposal. I don't think it's "hubris" to say that Highland Park does do things better than a lot of other places. The very fact that HP parents care enough to have this debate over a youth community center serves as testament to the fact that we are very lucky here. As I have said, I am sympathetic towards those who have used the Firehouse summer program in the past. I agree that the way in which these cuts were made seems frustrating, especially when other community expenditures seem extravagant. That being said, I find it interesting how quickly the uses of the Firehouse (from a parental perspective) went from 'parents who don't feel ready to leave their children unsupervised' (as the author said) to 'respite services' (as commenters said). If parents are using the Firehouse as respite care, then this is important information that needs to be addressed, since virtually all information on the Youth Services website frames the Firehouse in terms of youth-oriented service, not respite care. Perhaps this new information would influence debate. However, my previous experiences have taught me that residents--esp. young people--who challenge community issues are often met with public castigation rather than encouragement and lively debate.
Jill Goldstein June 18, 2011 at 06:17 PM
I use the youth center for supervision not respite
Lucy L. June 18, 2011 at 06:27 PM
Bottom line seems to be that the program is used by many for multiple reasons and should be given continued support.
Lucy L. June 18, 2011 at 06:28 PM
@ Francine - How do we get started?
Lucy L. June 18, 2011 at 06:39 PM
@ resident - I agree with your closing statement. This is not an easy place to speak up, and as I noted previously, I am well aware of the hostility that can be directed towards anyone who brings "different" to the table. That's why you and I both have made the decision to protect our confidentiality. Keep speaking up any way you can. If you don't you can never be a change agent in your community. As far as us v. other communities .... my comparisons are data driven Illinois communities and I know we are not a leader in this area. It's ok to be in the middle, but my personal belief system is that we should strive to move past ok when it comes to our children. A friend of mine who grew up here in the 70s joked that if a place like The Firehouse existed then fewer kids would have been using drugs @ 4:20. I can't prove that with data, but I believe that there is truth in it. Debate galvanizes ideas and drives change. Keep it up and best of luck to you in whatever your post-HPHS endeavors may be.
Lucy L. June 18, 2011 at 06:51 PM
Oh, and nothing is ever gained in just re-hashing disagreement. I also think that communicating in this manner is slowing things down and creating unintended interpretations. To move forward we need to suggest solutions. Mine was sliding scale. Francine noted that she had some ideas too. How about a meet-up of any interested parties on Monday, 5:30 at the Renaissance Place Starbucks? At least we can take notes on any positive suggestions and forward them to Nancy. Of course if she chooses to join us that would be even better!
francine ephraim June 18, 2011 at 09:49 PM
I can be available later that evening - can we agree to 7:45pm on Monday at Renaissance Place Starbucks? I can try to get some info from the city about $ so we have some facts and figures.
Todd Grayson June 18, 2011 at 10:28 PM
No problem with speaking up, but all of us open ourselves up to negative responses when we interpret others thoughts in the negative. A little "push back" is not castigation. Some may do it, but I try not to. I try to pause and reread prior to hitting the submit button. If I was too harsh, my sincerest apologies. Lucy L. I am sorry you were threatened on the Patch, I know during the past few years the political dialog (mostly Park Distrct and the last Mayoral race) went well over the top, and as a lifelong resident, it has been a bit sad that our town has been headline news for it; hopefully it will change over time. But it sounds as if both residents, and the City might add some extra energy back into the Firehouse, we will all be better off for it.
Lucy L. June 19, 2011 at 12:21 AM
7:45 works for me. Looking forward to it!
Scott Lukes June 21, 2011 at 02:42 PM
This is Scott Lukes and I worked at The Firehouse. It was a great experience for me when I was in Middle school and has been a rewarding experience working with the youths in the community. I hope to return in the fall, if anyone is looking for any supervision services this summer my number or discuss any new developments it is 847-525-8866. Thanks Jill and everyone else who posted.
Jennie Moore June 21, 2011 at 09:01 PM
I agree with the majority here. Programs like these are one of the only options for middle class/single parent families. I agree with Lucy that HP's middle class gets lost in the shuffle. We make too much to qualify for help and too little to take advantage of alot of programs. Even if we could afford them, most of them are at times that working families can not attend. My son attended Highland Park Nursery and Day Care, ASAP (when he attended Indian Trail), and the Firehouse when he was old enough, they were affordable. He couldn't do alot of the Park District activities, because some were out of reach regarding $$ but most of the time, it's because they are at times that working families can't attend. The Firehouse offers options for no school days, early release days and with busing from the schools, that are affordable and they offered before and after care. Only time the Park District does that is during the summer for camps. I don't know what I would've done if The Firehouse wasn't available. I am a single parent/middle class and really feel pushed to the side in the town I really do love.
Jill Goldstein June 21, 2011 at 09:05 PM
Thanks Jennie for sharing your experience. I believe the city council is looking into the matter so it would be wonderful if more people shared their personal stories.
Betsy Brint June 24, 2011 at 11:43 PM
I am so thrilled to read the passionate comments about the Firehouse. Jill - you are to be commended for speaking up. I spoke with a Dist. 112 teacher about this today - she pointed out that many of the families who count on the Firehouse when our schools have their monthly "Early Release" (don't get me started on those) days as well as their teacher in-service days, are uncomfortable speaking up about these issues. So Jill - thank you for speaking for the many who, without the Firehouse, would be forced to take time off from work or leave their children home unattended during these times. My son attended many Firehouse summer programs and we were so thrilled with the staff and the programs they offered. As for the hunger strike - forgetaboutit!

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