WOODLAWN — A South Side play center that recently reopened after a long hiatus is continuing to provide diapers, wipes and other essentials not covered by public assistance programs.
HelloBaby, 600 E. 61st St. in Woodlawn, is a free play space for children from birth to 3 years old. Debbie Frisch, who has two biological children and was a foster mother to 56 kids over the years, opened the center in 2017, offering South Side parents and kids an opportunity for creative and educational fun.
Such opportunities are far more abundant in her own North Side neighborhood, Frisch said. HelloBaby was founded to help bridge that gap.
“Play is the work of childhood; it’s how kids learn on every level,” she said. “If they don’t have developmentally rich opportunities to play, they’re likely to start school behind, and kids who start school behind are most likely to stay behind. It’s our way to level the playing field in Chicago.”
The play center was closed for six months at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Through the spring and summer, HelloBaby focused on giving away cleaning supplies, diapers, crafts and other educational resources every Wednesday.
HelloBaby has reopened with pandemic restrictions, such as a reservation system and a limit of eight guests per session, of which there are two per day. Staffers take attendees’ temperatures and hand sanitizer is offered. “We’re making it as safe as we can,” Frisch said.
The Wednesday giveaways have been phased out since the reopening because people in need can come when HelloBaby is open “and we’ll send you home with stuff,” Frisch said. The center’s hours are 9 a.m.–4 p.m. Monday–Friday.
However, with the coronavirus outbreak worsening and the possibility of stricter regulations, Frisch said the center could shut down and return to its weekly distributions if necessary.
For now, HelloBaby is always in need of diapers — particularly the larger sizes — to give away to visitors, and it has organized a holiday toy drive. A wishlist through Amazon shows the supplies, books and toys the center hopes to give away.
Staffers ask playdate attendees what they need and work with advocates throughout the South Side to determine what families need for the wishlist.
“We have the best neighbors and the best partners,” Frisch said. “We’re a smaller, really targeted organization, so we share our resources freely with other organizations — and they do [the same] with us.”
HelloBaby was a “community affiliate” of Strides for Peace, an organization that raises funds and awareness for community organizations combatting gun violence, for the latter’s virtual Race Against Gun Violence Sept. 19–26.
Beyond being a fundraising opportunity for organizations, Strides for Peace is intentional about connecting advocates with each other to amplify their work, said Executive Director Mary Stonor Saunders.
“It’s important to celebrate the work of organizations like HelloBaby” that offer wellness programming in neighborhoods most impacted by gun violence and coronavirus, Stonor Saunders said. The race lets them “feel the love and be congratulated for how awesome they are for doing this really hard work.”
HelloBaby and the Paving the Way Project in Washington Park were two of the nearly 60 organizations linked to each other through the September run and walk.
HelloBaby is doing “phenomenal” and necessary work in Woodlawn with its distributions, said Antonio Davis, founder and executive director of the Paving the Way Project. Since Davis met Frisch, Paving the Way and HelloBaby have partnered for a toy drive and September’s race for peace.
Whether they’re play centers like HelloBaby or violence prevention organizations like his own, advocates throughout Chicago have found a way to contribute to mutual aid efforts in their neighborhoods, Davis said.
“A lot of people had to flip their goals to feeding the community; more people needed laundry stuff, a lot of people were laid off,” Davis said. “People are reaching out for different assistance that we normally would not do. … Everybody is trying to help where they can.”
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