A Beacon of Hope
Community Center Expansion Brings Construction Professionals Together for Good
Six years ago, a group of volunteers from a food pantry in Waukegan, Illinois, gathered at a local restaurant to discuss a matter weighing heavily on their hearts. These eight individuals yearned to find a better way to impact the families they had interacted with for years. Specifically, they wanted to disrupt the cycle of poverty for school-age children by providing resources to support education, social enrichment and healthy lifestyles.
With a belief in the power of neighbors helping neighbors, they decided to create a place that would deliver programs focused on food and nutrition, overall health, academic support and life skills development. A few months later, in spring 2013, they opened Beacon Place, a local community center named to reflect their shared vision of providing a “beacon of hope” to guide children and families toward a brighter tomorrow.
“Many of the kids in our neighborhood have never left Waukegan,” says Barbara LaFasto, Executive Director of Beacon Place. “Our mission at Beacon Place is to provide them with the means to see a bigger world through programs and experiences that open up doors of opportunity that they never knew existed.”
Initially, Beacon Place provided lunches and backpacks of food for school-age children during summers, along with a day camp. As awareness of its mission grew, so did financial and volunteer support of its offerings. Today, the community center also provides tutoring, social and education programs for mothers, gardening classes for young children, and social guidance programs for tweens and teens.
To date, Beacon Place has helped over 700 families. More than 100 children are currently enrolled in tutoring programs, while summer programs average 200 participants. LaFasto adds, “About 50 moms take part in our programs focused on education, enrichment, socialization, health and nutrition, family dynamics, art and cooking classes, and ESL (English as a Second Language) instruction.” Around 30 adults volunteer year-round, while 100-120 high school and college-age individuals help during summers—and several also tutor throughout the year.
There’s no question that Beacon Place has helped countless families in the Waukegan and North Chicago communities. Now, this inspirational haven of hope is on the precipice of doing even greater good, thanks to the local construction community’s efforts to expand the facility.
Repurposing a Former Drug House
Back in 2013, a private donor purchased an abandoned drug house on South McAlister Avenue, in a formerly affluent section of southern Waukegan, giving it to the founders of Beacon Place to use as their new community center.
“That first year we were only able to use the outside yard for our programs, and only during the summertime, because we didn’t have heat,” recalls LaFasto. “Then, in 2014, we decided to renovate the house.”
Individuals and local companies donated more than $400,000 to upgrade the century-old structure, which Beacon Place’s founders wished to preserve because of its historical significance to the community. Reconstruction efforts—completed in 2015 and led by general contractor George Krinninger & Sons, Inc.—involved adding a teaching kitchen, a library, a technology room, meeting rooms and an organic garden.
Despite these improvements, continued space constraints limited many activities. So, in July 2017, Mary Ellen Patton, a member of Beacon Place’s Board of Directors, reached out to the local construction community seeking support to expand the complex.
Her professional background in the construction industry—paired with her enthusiasm to help her community—caught people’s attention. Thanks to Patton’s connections and initiative, a new group of building professionals were assembled to construct a three-story annex to accommodate Beacon Place’s ever-growing programs.
Rallying Behind a Worthwhile Cause
“Last year, I received a call from Mary Ellen, a former employee, who was reaching out for guidance on how to get this project done,” says David Henderson, President of Joseph J. Henderson & Son, Inc. (JJH). “She shared her organization’s mission and explained that they were looking for local contractors to donate services or materials to this expansion effort.”
Henderson readily agreed to donate his company’s resources, and also to help Patton round up other contractors and suppliers to take part in this worthwhile cause. This year marks 90 years in operation for the Gurnee, Illinois-based general contractor, which is self-performing a large percentage of the work on Beacon Place. Now in its third generation of family management, JJH provides an array of construction delivery services and is experienced in various project types—including commercial, educational, federal/military, health care, renewable fuel and chemical, and water and wastewater treatment.
The Beacon Place expansion project officially started last summer, with Legat Architects donating design services. Founded in 1964 in Waukegan, this award-winning architecture and interior design firm boasts a project portfolio spread across more than 30 countries.
“This project is special to our team because of its relationship to the Waukegan community, which is very near and dear to our hearts,” says Ted Haug, AIA, Design Principal at Legat Architects. “Beacon Place, which operates in an economically challenged part of the community, really looks at every aspect of meeting children’s needs. The organization was running its programs out of a woefully deficient, dilapidated 30-foot by 30-foot garage—the space was packed wall to wall, floor to ceiling. It couldn’t serve more kids due to lack of capacity.”
Scott Nelson, another key member of the project team, provided the geotechnical services required to design the foundation when he worked at Testing Service Corp. “Mary Ellen, whom I knew back when she worked at JJH, reached out to me directly. Besides the fact that Beacon Place is a great organization, the opportunity to enhance our relationships with other contractors was a real bonus,” says Nelson, who is now President of Nelson Testing Services, a full-service construction material testing and engineering firm located in Bartlett, Illinois. His new firm also provided concrete testing services for this project.
He continues, “When I was on site prepping for work, I saw the Beacon Place staff in action—and I clearly saw the passion they had for these kids and the community. This organization isn’t trying to serve these kids from the outside, or from a distance—they’re in the neighborhood, outside of their comfort zones and communities, to work with them on their turf. By surrounding yourself in the circumstances of others, it gives you added compassion and sympathy for what others are going through.” The necessary city permits were issued on December 5, 2017. By the next day, a crew was digging the foundation for what would become a 3,600-square-foot facility up to spec with the latest energy codes to create a more efficient, healthier space for Beacon Place’s operations.
“We knocked down the old garage to build a beautiful new, detached annex,” says Haug.
“The structure’s lowest level is a basement featuring extra-tall ceilings that are perfect for storage, while the ground floor will be used for food delivery and as a staging area for the backpack distribution program. The second floor is designed to host large meetings, with a folding partition available to separate it into two separate spaces.”
Construction is expected to be completed this May, with the total project value in the ballpark of $520,000.
Numerous other entities offered their resources or volunteered manpower for this effort, including several members of the Great Lakes Construction Association (GLCA), an Illinois construction trade association comprised of over 200 contractors, suppliers and other industry professionals. “Our members are extremely generous and always seem willing to assist the community on projects that help local families,” says Tim Marabella, Executive Vice President of GLCA. “Beacon Place is a wonderful program run by an extraordinary group of volunteers, providing a safe environment for children to play, have fun and be educated.”
United and Inspired
The leaders and volunteers at Beacon Place are in awe of the overwhelming support of this life-changing initiative. “Everyone is always asking, ‘What can we do, how can we make this happen?’ ” marvels LaFasto. “Plus, it’s amazing how all the contractors stay connected and move things forward so quickly and smoothly, working together to coordinate materials and streamline the construction schedule.”
Many have stepped up to raise funds and promote awareness of the community center project. Legat Architects, for instance, hosted an Oktoberfest-themed fundraising event last year where in-house volunteers created artistic drawings and other items to auction off, raising around $6,000. “About 100-150 people attended the event, including a lot of the contractors involved in the project,” says Haug, who notes that altruistic partnerships strengthen connections between building and construction professionals. “You spend a lot of time working with these professionals on for-profit projects, but when you’re doing something philanthropically, you really get to know people. It brings out the best in others and creates a higher level of trust.”
Nelson adds, “Beacon Place is graciously serving community members without removing their dignity; rather, the staff and volunteers are trying to build dignity and strengthen good family and community values. It has been exciting and intrinsically rewarding to give back to an organization with this type of vision. When you’re blessed with much, you have a greater responsibility to use your talents and resources for the benefit of others. Contractors are in a position of authority and power, and they have the ability to wield good with it.”
“Everyone—as is evidenced by the outpouring of donations and support—obviously wants to help,” chimes in Henderson. “Our tradespeople are inspired by how this facility positively impacts the community. Everyone has gone above and beyond to make sure this expansion turns out perfectly.”
“We believe that Beacon Place serves as a springboard for inspiration and guidance—a place where the families in our programs see their own vision of opportunity, and they work toward the change that they seek. They are so excited about this project and have been contributing whatever they can to help us with it,” says LaFasto. “We are also so grateful to all the contractors and others who have stepped up and said, ‘We want to be part of this project because we believe in your mission.’ The generosity of these wonderful people is appreciated by all at Beacon Place.”