Grandmother Park Initiative nears fundraising goal to create west Evanston tot lot

Manuel Rapada, Assistant City Editor

On a summer walk in 2009, west Evanston resident Gay Riseborough and her neighbor Mary Trujillo talked about how there seemed to be no safe place for their then-4-year-old grandsons to play.

Washington Elementary School is nearby, but Riseborough said the playground cannot be used during school hours, “exactly when young children would want to go to a park.” After school, the playground is not safe for toddlers to play on their own because older children use it, she said.

With no city funds available for a tot lot, Riseborough and Trujillo rallied others in their neighborhood to form the “Grandmother Park Initiative.”  Thanks to individual and group donations, the committee-turned-nonprofit has raised $200,000 of its $250,000 budget to build a toddler-only playground in west Evanston.

Ald. Peter Braithwaite (2nd), whose ward contains the planned tot lot at 1125 Dewey Ave., praised GPI members for their work creating awareness and soliciting funds from neighbors and nearby businesses.

“In an economic time like this, where there’s scarcity of funds, that’s no easy task,” Braithwaite said.

And contrary to the initiative’s name, grandmothers aren’t the only supporters of this effort.

Riseborough said the neighborhood is excited about the project — some donors threw their arms around GPI members who appeared at their doors — because parents and grandparents don’t have options if young children want to play outside.

“They put them in a car to somewhere else or they don’t send them out to play,” she said.

GPI is currently in a three-way agreement with the city and Openlands, a Chicago nonprofit that buys and holds properties for public use.

Riseborough said GPI looked at four pieces of land as potential sites for the park and eventually settled on a “very reasonably” priced parcel where a foreclosed home burned in June 2009. Openlands currently owns the 32 foot by 166 foot parcel.

Should the group meet its June 30 deadline, the money will be given to the city, which will reimburse Openlands for the land. The city will then build the park with a site plan informed by community input, Riseborough said.

The “Grandmother Park” will include swings and a play structure suitable for children ages 2 to 5 years, according to a fall 2011 concept plan posted on the GPI website. Once built, the park will be maintained by the city.

Donations to GPI range from $20 to $10,000 among individual donors, in addition to thousands more from city grants, nearby businesses and other fundraising events, Riseborough said.

Safeway Inc., owner of the supermarket chain Dominick’s, presented GPI with a $25,000 check at a July event that caught the attention of Braithwaite, Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl and State Rep. Robyn Gabel (D-Evanston).

In September, representatives from The Employees Community Fund of The Boeing Company visited the Dewey Avenue site. The organization granted GPI more than $18,000 to cover landscaping costs, said risk finance manager Michelle Hubicki.

Hubicki described the community as “very passionate and heartfelt.”

“You can tell that they devoted a lot of time and effort into the project,” she said. “It really meant something for them to come together as a community. Gay even brought us back to her house for lunch.”

The Evanston Community Foundation has donated $11,800, including a $6,000 grant in the spring and another $1,000 as part of ECF’s 25th anniversary.

“They’ve done a fantastic job of gathering other support,” said Marybeth Schroeder, the foundation’s vice president for programs. “While we’ve continued to invest in this project, we’ve seen other investors … who also believe in this project.”

Riseborough, an artist, said she “couldn’t begin to answer” how much time she has put into GPI. She said she closed her studio in May to focus on the nonprofit and her grandchildren.

“Between ‘Grandmother Park’ and my grandchildren, it’s full-time work,” Riseborough said.