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Menomonee Club, an Old Town Institution

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Sachiko Yoshitsugu

Moved to Chicago two years ago. Interests are: the Outdoors, Fashion, economics, and obviously journalism. I have a twin sister.

The Menomonee Club is really a special and unique institution in Old Town from its committed staff to the building in which it first started back in 1946. This week I was lucky enough to meet with the Director of the Club, Neal Bader, who has been on board since 1987. Also last Sunday I stopped by the club and took pictures of the historic Willow Clubhouse and of the Chess group practicing their skills, so check out the photo gallery!

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What is the Menomonee Club? What is your mission?

We are recreational programs for kids and families. Just about anything that's in the area of fun. That is what we cover, from sports and games to arts and theater, anything of interest to children.

I've been with the club since 1987. The club was 120 kids when I got here. We now work with over 2,000 children. And so the membership have grown significantly over the years. 

We have eight professional staff full-time and about 40 part-time staff including contract instructors. So if you're coming here for a judo class we have a judo sensei that runs the judo club. He is on contract part-time.

We would have some parent volunteers like cub scouts and brownies, but most of the classes as of now are taught by professional staff on a contract basis somebody who comes and teaches art class or who comes and teaches judo programs, taekwondo, theater programs.


On your web site it says that kids come from over 80 different schools in Chicago. What does that mean for the club and the kids?

If you were to draw a club demographic ring, we get kids from as far away as the suburbs, but each of the individual schools like a block from here is the La Salle school and all the public and private and colloquial schools in the area. It's just defined by what school the child goes to...It might be closer to 90 now.

Are many of the kids from the Old Town area?

When the club was first opened it was defined as the Old Town Triangle area only. That's mainly because everyone walked everywhere in 1946. As you've gotten here we define it as a neighborhood recreational program. We have 3 different buildings. This is our oldest building we've had it since 1950. If you live in the Old Town area you probably take one program or another with us.

What are your most popular programs?

Sports league programs are always very very popular. I think our single largest program is still baseball and softball and then basketball or the theater arts programs. Between theater and dance there is a couple hundred kids. So it really is a large variety. The martial arts has a couple of hundred. We have a large fencing program, but the sports leagues tend still to be the most popular.

We have programs for kids as young as 18 months and then we go all the way up to high school ages. We provide partner programs that specialize in age groups thus the contract teacher aspect. So you have a wide variety of ages and programs. Still the bulk of of our kids are in the 5-year-old to 10-year-old age group.

When you get up to the middle school to high school age groups they get so specialized to what their school is doing. So we draw them to the special interest programs. They will come for the dance classes  or come for a theater program. They come for things that are more individually-oriented. And nowadays there is so much homework.

How involved are parents here?

They tend to be very involved. If you were to be here in the afternoon when the kids are in here. You missed a mad science class this morning. Parents hangout a lot. We don't use volunteers as extensively as we used to when we were getting started. Typical involved parents like to hangout and watch. At some of our facilities you see a lot of parents helping with homework. passive but involved jparents. Some of our programs are completely volunteer driven.

You get a odd combination of parents who want to be involved at the same time there is more of a push for parents who want more professional staffing. That's a big change from say 15 years ago. Now there are two working parents who are very busy, so it's hard to even coordinate to volunteer sometimes.

How do you reach out to the community? How do people find out about the Menomonee Club?

It's 90 percent word of mouth. We've been around for a long time. Our brochures go out to our mailing list, we do email and we do drop off. Mostly it's word of mouth. We don't do much outside advertising. We're kind of the neighborhood store that keeps going. Fortunately people hear about at all the good programs we have here.

Do you have ties with other community organizations?

Oh yes. Although we're a stand alone at the Old Town Triangle Association--have you met Shirley and Lesley over there--we use space over there. The boys scouts meet over here. We're heavily involved in the Old Town Art Fair which has been around since the early 1950s.

It was originally created to fund the Menomonee Club and the Old Triangle. We consider ourselves sister organizations.  Although they technically run the Art Fair we run the food court completely, the children's corner and one of the gates. We receive a big percentage as a donation to fund the clubhouse here. That's a little known fact about the menomonee club in Old Town. 

This building is an Old Town institution. The club has been around since 1946, this builiding since 1950. This is an old two lane bowling alley. If you pull up the carpet you'll see the alleys under there. They're a little beaten up under there now.

If you're in the neighborhood we're a big draw if your a family in the community. People are aware of us. They like that we're a safe place for kids to come to do activities hangout and things of that nature. We're pretty well integrated into the community. We've been here forever. We're probably one of the oldest businesses in the area.

Do you feel that the concerns of Old Town are also the concerns of the Menomonee Club?

To some extent. This is a historic district and a historic building. We keep it historic in terms of the look. We do like to have a safe, beautiful and old-timey feel to the place. Families and communities are what we are. We're fortunate enough that you've trusted us with your children.

So if you're a family, if you were to come to Chicago and say I want to live in Old Town and you have kids, you're going to be looking at school and also looking at activities so we know that our history here with the familys people really consider us with that...We all want a safe beautiful district here. I'd say that's the commonality of interests here.

Is there anything else you'd like to say about the Club?

It's unique. One of things we try to do with club, when you walk into this building it's like going to grandma's house. That's the kind of feel we have. We try to be consistent with our staffing and with all the people here. We're starting to get second generation kids. Kids who came through our program are now having their  kids and that is special and unique and wonderful. The stability of our programs and the stability of what we are to the community and the people here.

In a about half an hour Linda Cole will come in here. Linda is my club house supervisor. She is totally in charge of this building. I've been here 22 years, Linda has been here 18 years. So when you come into this place really it's like coming into Linda's house. People come for people and you trust your kids with people not a building. That's what we're really about, people providing care for you and your family.

As a community organization if you were to use a community web site, what kind of stuff would you like to see?

We're a non-for-profit so we're not an aggressive business competing with other businesses. We really need, because we're word-of mouth and we don't have an advertising budget, to have more people with eyes on our programs. We're a place where if you were to come to us and say my daughter loves dance, If we're the place for you, you should know about us.

We're a choice place. We're not out telling people that we're the best place better than everyone else. We're awfully nice. We have really nice programs, please take a look at us if you're looking for these types of programs. We're here to serve the community.

 It's another way to use word-of-mouth. You should never think you don't need just be aware of what you have and your limitations. Non-for-profit doesn't mean not being able to pay your bills.

Thanks Neal!!

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