An early retiree makes it her mission to create a community play space for children in underserved Chicago neighborhoods

Written by Debbie Frisch, Founder and Executive Director, Hello Baby

I retired from the work force at the ripe old age of 29 to stay home and raise my two biological daughters. When they entered full day school, I began the search for something meaningful to do with my new found time. Thus began my 20 year journey of service to under-resourced families with young children. I’ve been a not-for-profit volunteer, board director, board officer, and (probably most significantly) a foster mother. I have been blessed to have had 56 children between birth to 5 years in my care. In this, I found the mission that I was put here on earth to follow.

I fell head over heels in love with each child who came into my care. I also quickly learned that in order to support a child, I needed to embrace his entire family. We always welcomed families of the children we cared for into our home, and we were frequent visitors to theirs as well. Many of these relationships continue to enrich our lives

Through this experience, I saw first hand the gaps in our social service system and the challenges families living in neighborhoods impacted by poverty face. When I received an unexpected inheritance, I knew I could grow this mission to reach more families. Instead of bringing the babies into our home, it was my turn to travel to where the need was the greatest. HelloBaby was born.

Due to neighborhood violence, economic challenges, and overwhelmed caregivers, I knew of many children who didn’t have healthy, safe opportunities for play. Research shows that the early years of a child’s life are the most developmentally crucial. At 3 years of age, 80% of of a child’s brain development has occurred. And when children start behind, they tend to stay behind. In low-income neighborhoods, children start kindergarten 60 percent behind their peers in affluent communities. Children also need interaction with other children to know how to make, be, and keep a friend. Social skills provide the foundation for success in school and beyond.

Given this, my vision was a drop-in play space for children from birth to 3 years accompanied by a caregiver. My goals were twofold: the first was to offer a safe, happy space where children could play with each other. In the words of the great Mr. Rogers, “Play is the work of childhood.” The second goal was to address the social isolation that often comes with parenting – especially when caregivers don’t have the resources they need. The mothers I’ve worked with over the years overwhelmingly describe themselves as lonely, helpless, and hopeless. I knew that connections among mothers ease the burdens and isolation of parenting. I wanted caregivers to share the joys, challenges, and worries of raising children, and help to lift each other up.

I ran this concept by my friend, Shannon Gedey, who is a medical architect in Perkins&Will’s Chicago studio. She arranged for me to pitch it to their Social Purpose Committee. Happily, Perkins&Will was excited to partner with us and as a result we are the first free standing, free of charge drop-in play space in the nation.

Our intention was to honor the neighborhood with a beautiful and inviting space, and we have. Since our opening in July, 2017, HelloBaby has become a beacon of light and hope, and is drawing families from all over the South Side of Chicago. Just as a neighborhood without healthy food options is known as a food desert, we are the change agent in an area rife with play deserts.

In a few months time, children have reached new milestones, caregivers from different socio- economic backgrounds have connected and created community, social service referrals have been provided, clothes, toys, and diapers have been distributed, and meaningful enrichment programs have been implemented. We are energized by the children that visit and inspired by the caregivers who share their experiences.

Our hope is to put more HelloBaby facilities in neighborhoods that need them. Perkins&Will created a fun and successful template from which we can thrive and grow. This is no ordinary space and that has made all the difference.