For me, there is no "magic moment" that I remember more than others that I experienced during my years of volunteering at the Quinn Center. The whole concept of forming a gathering place for the residents of Maywood/Broadview in the vacant St. Eulalia school was "magical"! My commitment started at the very beginning, in the fall of 2010, when our pastor at that time, Fr. Carmelo Mendez, envisioned a community center for the parish's neighbors, the residents of Maywood and Broadview, in the St. Eulalia school building and spoke to the parish council about the possibilities that could come to fruition in education, sports, fellowship and
community involvement. Having grown up in poor immigrant neighborhoods and public housing at a time when there weren't many options available for community engagement and constructive activities for kids, I could relate to Fr. Carmelo's proposal and immediately connected to it.
His ideas came alive and the school building became the Quinn Community Center, named to honor Msgr. Bill Quinn and his passionate involvement throughout his religious life with the poor and disadvantaged and the many social injustices they faced in their lives. As a member of the parish Human Concerns committee and as site coordinator for the West Suburban PADS program, I, along with other parish and committee members, were asked to meet with the newly hired, part-time director of the center, Gabriel Lara, to plan a calendar of programs, activities and other functions for the center to offer to the community. While those more structured programs were being formed, we immediately began after school tutoring programs, ESL classes, dance classes, music lessons and expanded food pantry and soup kitchen programs, all staffed and organized by volunteers.
One of the "magic" memories for me is that Gabriel was the only paid staff member of the Quinn Center. All the programs and activities that became part of the Center were conceived and managed by volunteers! I taught ESL to a group of mostly Latina women and some of their spouses and other family members. This first core group of women were about to begin a journey of much growth and independence through programs that were developed specifically for women as the Center grew. I really enjoyed getting to know those wonderful women through that class; however, my real commitment of volunteering at the Center began with the formation of the first summer program for kids the following July.
I was asked to work with the little ones, ages 5-8, finding something fun, yet meaningful, for them to do. I facilitated an art program for them, having absolutely no art talent myself. I came up with the idea of making greeting cards from the limited supplies we had that first year – construction paper, markers and glitter! We created the cards, sent them to shut-ins and disabled veterans at Hines hospital nearby and prayed for those receiving our cards. Those kids, young as they were, "got it". The enthusiasm, kindness and understanding they showed in doing something that they understood would make someone else feel loved and appreciated really sealed the deal for me in my desire to be involved. How could you not fall in love with these innocent little ones in their simple act of caring for others, as the Gospels tells us we all must live ! The summer program has grown and remained a valuable option for the community and their families over the past ten years and I still remember with fondness and gratitude the opportunity I had to be part of those early, formative years.
The "magic moments" continued as I began spending more time at the Center. Gabriel had his hands full juggling program planning, administrative tasks, building a donor base, recording and thanking donors and sponsors, seeking grants and establishing relationships with donors, community and corporate sponsors. I had plenty of free time in the evening after my work day ended, so I began to help him with some of those responsibilities. I never saw them as tasks; for me, it was more a labor of love for the Quinn Center and all who entered its doors to help it prosper and that gave back to me much more than I ever gave to the Center. New cherished and enduring friendships; so many opportunities to expand and embrace peoples of other cultures, their traditions, their dreams , their struggles and fears, their family lives, all enriched my life and helped me to grow; the opportunity to use my business skills and implement my justice oriented value system to cultivate like-minded donors and sponsors and the opportunity to welcome other faith congregations and community organizations to share our space in spreading their voice – interaction upon interaction – all empowered and solidified my Catholic beliefs – enabling me to continue choosing to live my life as God asks of us. (Matthew 25:40).
Some of my favorite memories revolve around that first group of Latina women in my ESL class and their families. These families and their commitment to the programs and activities provided to them through the Quinn Center, remain a fond memory for me to this day. I smile when I think back to what a typical evening at the Center was like. The kids were in tutoring, music, dance, art or sports programs; the hallways and gym and lower level were filled with their laughter and presence. The hallway walls became showcases for their art, of which they were so proud. Meanwhile their moms were also in the building, participating in English classes, teaching each other sewing and cooking skills, or attending programs presented by community and advocacy groups on empowerment, domestic violence, leadership skills, business skills, childcare and faith formation. Some of their husbands were often around the premises as well, learning English or computer skills, cleaning and repairing the building, acting as a security presence when the building was occupied and at community events. It was a joy to witness this once empty, decaying building come alive day after day, moment by moment, in this now vital community formed by so many who were living their lives in joy and gratitude for the opportunities presented to them.
On Tuesday evenings, many of those families would eat supper at the soup kitchen, facilitated by Martha Minnich and her dedicated team of volunteers and then move upstairs to the programs and activities waiting for them, once again staffed by the most dedicated volunteers from within the parish, within the Maywood/Broadview communities and other parishes and community organizations. We experienced many "magic moments" in that once darkened building on 8th avenue that was now a gathering place of peace, love, friendship and encouragement for all who entered. We were witness to Fr. Carmelo Mendez's vision, and Fr. Bill Quinn's legacy, coming to fulfillment at the Quinn Center. I feel all of us, the participants and the volunteers, came away from those experiences with so much richness, growth and fulfillment in our lives by being part of the evolvement of the Center.
Congratulations and blessings to Kristen and all the current volunteers and community participants and prayers of thanksgiving for the passion and foresight of Msgr. Bill Quinn, Fr. Carmelo Mendez and Gabriel Lara in making the "magic moments" come to life for so many at the Quinn Center of St. Eulalia parish in Maywood Illinois.
Mary Ellen O'Donnell
former parishioner, volunteer and founding board member of the Quinn Center