Winnetka, News

Winnetka Youth Organization pauses services, seeks new strategy

The Winnetka Youth Organization, a longstanding community nonprofit aiming to “foster individual development in adolescents,” recently announced that it is suspending operations because of unresolved funding shortages.

According to a statement released May 23, the youth organization has not recovered from limited participation and decreased funding during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic introduced unexpected hurdles that placed immense strain on our resources and volunteer operations,” the statement from the organization’s executive board reads. “Despite our best efforts to adapt and overcome these obstacles, we were unable to sustain the necessary funding and activity flow to continue our vital services for the youth in our community.”

The Winnetka Youth Organization, founded in 1969, endeavors to “empower adolescents to become more active community members and leaders” through its wide array of programs and initiatives.

Its primary service is an after-school drop-in center that serves hundreds of New Trier-area teenagers each year in the Winnetka Community House. The Winnetka YO also offers tutoring, service activities, leadership training, and performing arts programming, such as the Battle of the North Shore Bands. A Youth Board of local high-schoolers helps inform the director of the organization.

Winnetka YO participants cleaning a Winnetka beach in 2021.

The WYO celebrated 50 years of operations with an anniversary benefit in April 2019 — approximately one year before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.

Eleven months later, on March 13, 2020, the organization closed its in-person headquarters in the Community House in response to growing public health concerns.

Throughout the bulk of the pandemic, the WYO transitioned to virtual and social-distancing-friendly activities, including online homework help sessions, park cleanups and outdoor game days, officials say.

Although the organization reopened its doors and began the transition back to traditional in-person programming in April 2021, it never fully recovered from the “financial and organizational challenges triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to WYO leaders. “The difficult decision [to suspend operations] was made due to lack of sufficient funding and resources to sustain our programs and initiatives.”

The Winnetka Youth Organization is funded by individual donors and public agencies. Its largest funder, New Trier Township, has supported the YO since 1970 and was committed to grant the YO $50,000 in 2023. The Winnetka Park District also regularly supports the Winnetka Youth Organization.

According to the Winnetka YO’s tax forms, which are available online, it collected $125,067 in revenue during its 2016-’17 fiscal year. Post-pandemic — according to a budget sheet submitted to New Trier Township — the YO earned just $103,886 in 2020-’21, projected to collect $110,500 in ’21-’22 and hoped for $125,500 in ’22-’23.

Officials said they have not been able to meet those numbers, which reportedly are necessary to cover growing staffing costs that were projected to rise $20,000, or 22.6 percent, this fiscal year.

“Since one of the biggest factors that influence repeat teen visits to our center is positive relationships with the staff, it is essential that we continue to have excellent paid staff members to ensure we offer a consistent quality experience in our center,” wrote Safiyyah Hassan, the group’s executive director, in the funding application submitted to the Township.

Hassan wrote in the application that the YO has increased efforts to secure community and public grants to no avail, saying that with changing priorities “many foundations and donors do not perceive the Winnetka Youth Organization as a priority for financial support.”

The Winnetka YO’s rent at the Winnetka Community House ($19,445/annually) also recently increased 20.4 percent. The group’s board president, Yevgeny Frolov, said that a reliable and controlled space is essential to the YO’s current offerings.

The Winnetka Youth Organization … has to adapt. We have to figure out a go-forward for an entity like this.”
Yevgeny Frolov, president of the Winnetka YO Board of Directors

While the Winnetka Youth Organization regrets having to close its doors for the foreseeable future, its leaders are hopeful that this “temporary suspension” will be just that: temporary. But officials are also taking this roadblock as an opportunity to reflect on the organization’s past, celebrating the impact they’ve made in the community and the people who have helped them achieve it.

“We would like to express our deepest gratitude to all our donors, partners, community, and Township members who have supported us throughout our journey,” they said. “It is your unwavering support that has allowed us to make a significant difference in the lives of young individuals within our community.”

From here, the group needs time to figure out the best next move, said Heather Hehman, a board member and communications professional.

“We need to take the time to figure out a more sustainable model,” she said. “We can’t resume programming next month. … We need to build up enough money to know we’re going to have reserves to pay staff, have programming and have a plan.”

Hehman and Frolov said one idea is to partner with like-minded service agencies. One of them, the Warming House of Wilmette, also recently closed its youth center while it seeks sustainability.

Frolov also mentioned YO officials are exploring the idea of more virtual services; though, nothing has been decided.

“The Winnetka Youth Organization has been around 50 years; that doesn’t mean it has to still exist in the same service niche. It has to adapt,” he said. “We have to figure out a go-forward for an entity like this.”

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Luke Tyson

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