For Lightford, New Maywood Recreation Center A Mission Accomplished

Sunday, December 16, 2018 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews 

Featured image: Sen. Kimberly Lightford, the lawmaker most influential in helping the park district secure funds to renovate and reopen the facility at 809 Madison St. in Maywood, inside of the third floor of the building, which was named in her honor this month. | Shanel Romain 

As community members filed through the Lightford Recreation Center, 809 Madison St. in Maywood, on Dec. 15, the facility’s namesake, state Sen. Kimberly Lightford (4th), basked in the glory of it all.

The park district’s central area headquarters — a large corner spanning 8th and 9th Avenues along Madison Street that includes outdoor recreational space and two brick buildings connected by an enclosed walkway — was where Lightford came of age. It was where she played as a kid and where she attended high school dances.

In particular, the building facing Madison Street, the former Children’s Receiving Home, sparked Lightford’s two decades in politics and proved something of a thorn in her side for most of her time in office so far, as hundreds of thousands of dollars in state funding the lawmaker secured for the building’s renovation seemed mired in endless construction work.

On Saturday, however, a few weeks after park district officials surprised Lightford by naming the building in her honor, the facility served as a beacon of community pride not only for its namesake but also for the dozens of people who streamed through its revitalized doors.

“This is nothing but history baby!” said longtime Maywood resident Billy Fowlkes after touring the facility that was renovated after Lightford allocated $1.6 million in state funds to the park district some four years ago. “No matter how long it took, it’s done now. Embrace it, enjoy it,love it.”

For Lightford, the journey has, indeed, been long, going back to when she would visit the central area grounds with friends as a young child and “go wild” on a large playground contraption the shape of a rocket. In high school, Lightford recalled, she would revel in parties thrown inside of the park district’s gymnasium.

All of those memories came closing in on Lightford one day during the winter of 1995, when she returned from graduate school and discovered that the 809 Madison Building, roughly one-half of the two-building compound that comprised what generations of Maywoodians have known simply as the Rec, had been shuttered.

“I was so disappointed,” she recalled during an interview on Dec. 15. “So, I called Gene Moore, who was our state representative at the time, and I told him, ‘Mr. Moore, the Rec is boarded up!’ He told me, ‘What are you going to do about it?’”

Moore, Lightford said, encouraged her to run for trustee to“get the parks put together for the youth in our community … That was my first glimpse into public service.”

In 1997, Lightford acted on Moore’s advice — and won. A year later, she ran for the Illinois Senate. Since then, she’s helped shift Maywood’s recreational landscape at the local and state level — from the Boys and Girls Club’s move into the former Masonic Temple at 200 S. 5th Ave. to the creation of a parks and recreation division within the village government.

Lightford said that she had allocated some $3 million to Maywood for parks and recreation purposes by the time she helped the village secure a $1 million state grant in 2006 to renovate and re-open the 809 Madison building.

Sen. Kimberly Lightford outside of the newly renovated Maywood community center recently named in her honor. | Shanel Romain 

According to state records, roughly $750,000 was ultimately disbursed to the park district — money that records show had been transferred in phases between March 2006 and December 2009.

By 2014, when Lightford accompanied Gov. Pat Quinn to Maywood to drop-off a dummy check to the park district — symbolizing yet another $1.6 million that Lightford was largely responsible for helping the park district secure for building renovations — the fruits of the first $1 million grant were hard to see.

“That was heartbreaking for me,” Lightford said at the time. “To be honest, it was the most devastating thing in my career so far.”

Nowadays, Lightford’s devastation has been tempered somewhat by understanding. She knows more about the nature of construction now than she did then, she said.

Even though she still believes that the park district, which was under different leadership back then, could have leveraged the funds more effectively, such as raising more local dollars to match the state share, she doesn’t think that the $1 million grant money was spent in vain.

“In [the prior park district administration’s] defense, now that I understand construction a little better, it looks like they gutted the building,” she said. “Some of the work they did we don’t see, but I think they laid the groundwork [for the work that was done with the $1.6 million grant].”

The new center includes a health and fitness room, a dance studio and music instruction space, a kitchen, administrative offices, an instructional space for the very young, a room devoted to senior citizens and a third-floor multipurpose room that includes several lounge areas and a billiards table.

Community members utilize a fitness room on the second-floor of the Lightford Recreation Center during a public grand opening on Dec. 15. | Shanel Romain 

The renovations to the 809 building follow a round of improvements for the district’s recreational grounds that were completed earlier this year. Those improvements included the installation of anew basketball court, a gazebo that has since hosted weddings and a new parking lot, among other upgrades.

During Saturday’s official grand opening, longtime Maywood residents such as Sherrod Toney and Tywanna Grace-Rand walked through the building amazed at the transformation.

Both women still remember the 809 Madison building when it was the Children’s Receiving Home, a facility that housed orphans for decades since the early 1900s before the home closed and the building was turned over to the park district.

The district used it for various administrative and programming purposes before closing it down.

“I remember we would come here and watch the fish tanks,”said Toney, who added that she’s lived in Maywood since 1973. “There were maybe 20 fish tanks back when it was an orphanage.”

Grace-Rand said that she was classmates with an orphan who lived in the receiving home.

Maywood Park District Commissioner Arnettra Burnside inside of the Lightford Recreation Center on Dec. 15. | Shanel Romain 

“A boy in my class was an orphan at that time,” she said. “They lacked proper clothing and nurturing. To see what this has become today is just really remarkable. It’s going to really impact the community.”

Barbara Cole, the founder and executive director of Maywood Youth Mentoring was a vocal and vigilant critic of the prior park district administration’s use of the first $1 million state grant that Lightford helped the district secure. Cole even staged a protest outside of the building to raise awareness about the renovation’s stalled progress.

“I’m pleased that this building is finally open,” she said on Saturday. “It’s badly needed and I hope it will be a place to keep kids off the street and give them something positive and constructive to do.”

Cole said she’s already scouted the new space for somewhere to house her organization’s Black History Club.

While Cole’s mission may be just getting started, Lightford said hers is complete.

“I feel joy, I feel humility, I feel like God gave me an assignment and it’s done and I want people to enjoy it,” she said. VFP

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