By Cheryl Weiss
THE BEST GIFT MY MOM EVER GAVE ME was a childhood in Oak Park. I grew up seven houses from Shepherd Park, or “Oak Park Park,” as we called it.
It was perfect; the park was our playground, and summers were spent enjoying the freedom and fun of riding our bikes to the pool, playing a few rounds of mini golf, cooling off in the library with a new book, riding up and down the hill, watching the games at the baseball diamonds, wandering into the ice arena to watch the guys play hockey while having lunch at the snack bar, or just hanging out in the park with friends on the train.
Later, as a Teen Volunteer, I had caring mentors and gained valuable job skills that helped me as I entered the work world. I loved giving back and helping others so much that I continued to volunteer long after I aged out of the Teen Volunteer program. When I retired five years ago, one of the first things I wanted to do was start volunteering in my community again. I always felt like I had a place here in Oak Park; that I belonged here.
We all belong here. Oak Park’s strength is our diversity. We are a beautiful mix of cultures, races, religions, sexual orientations, backgrounds, and traditions. As children, we learned what a treasure this is as we learned from each other; sharing our food, dances, art, music, and pieces of our lives. As adults, as a community, our diversity and our lifelong connections define who we are. It’s #OP4LIFE, our hashtag. It’s an Oak Park thing: You can’t explain it; you just have to experience it.
OAK PARK HAS CHANGED IN THE LAST 50 YEARS and, as much as I loved growing up here, this is the best time to live in Oak Park. Summer Concerts in the Park are back on Thursday evenings, more popular than ever. Nine Mile is being transformed into a fun, walkable area with pocket parks and linear parks. The Library has events for every interest, from adult coloring to STEAM activities, and a fabulous children’s play area. Public Safety’s ice-cream truck is on the road, sharing sweets and smiles, deepening the positive relationships between Public Safety and the community in ways not often seen in other communities. Fourth of July 2019 was better than ever, with the Oak Park Youth Assistance Pancake Breakfast, the parade, and fun in the park. Not only are former Oak Parkers coming back for the 4th of July; many of those who moved west in the 1980s are now buying homes in Oak Park and raising their families here, the community they loved and never forgot.
It’s more than the development and events, though. Mayor Marian McClellan, City Council, and City Manager Erik Tungate are responsive to the concerns and suggestions of the community. Recently, residents wanted a stop sign at Balfour and Kipling. They complained, and a stop sign is now there. In June, a group of residents wanted Oak Park to raise the Pride flag. They contacted the City, attended a City Council meeting, a new policy was crafted, and the Pride flag was soon flying at City Hall.
MY BEST FRIEND SAYS OAK PARK is like The Wonder Years TV show. Maybe it is. Oak Park is home, it’s a place where each of us belong, where we are each welcome to contribute what we can and participate in the events we love. It’s lifelong connections, and it’s something special. Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz had it right: “There’s no place like home.”