Gazette Article by: John T. Thomas
Appeared in the Gazette: Summer 2003
Several years ago when the Minnesota Historical Society reopened its exhibit area, a unique approach was taken to interpret its history from “A to Z.” Various objects and topics were depicted by “letters,” and visitors moved through the gallery “alphabetically.” The editorial board of the Winnetka Historical Society Gazette has decided to adopt a similar technique and has added a new feature, “WINNETKA HISTORY: A to Z.”
For almost 35 years, Winnetka high school teens have asked, “Whassup at the YO?” referring to the Winnetka Youth Organization’s drop-in center. Remaining constant through the years, the YO’s mission is to support our community’s teens as they cope with the complex issues of adolescence.
Roots of the Winnetka Youth Organization date back to 1966, the beginning of the Vietnam War, a time of growing substance abuse and vandalism. Great strains were placed on relationships between young people and adults. Parents were anxious over teen disenfranchisement and saw no gathering place where teens could go to share their concerns.
A group of Winnetkans began a teen informal drop-in center in 1967. It was formalized and incorporated in 1969 as a non-profit charitable group, the Winnetka Youth Organization, soon called “the YO” by the teens. Seeking a permanent home, the YO moved into the basement of the new west wing of the Winnetka Community House in early 1973. During the current reconstruction, the YO has moved permanently to the basement of the east end of the Community House.
Giving teens an informal place after school and on weekends to spend time talking about their problems is still the primary purpose of the YO. With staff well attuned to teen issues, and in a drug- and smoke-free setting open to all high-schoolers, the teens feel free to discuss issues that vex them.
Public service activities are part of the YO mission. A fall clean-up drive at the beach and a biannual clean-up on the Green Bay Trail are such activities. Also, well-attended Chicago field trips serving food to indigents are part of that public service commitment.
For 15 years, YO teens have gone on annual summer journeys to out-of-state Habitat for Humanity locations. The teens spend supervised 10-hour days building homes. This provides invaluable experiences in helping others as well as gaining awareness of life outside the North Shore.
Often working with the Park District, the YO sponsors monthly teen band concerts in the center and outdoor activities at nearby beaches and state parks. There are also trips to movies and sporting events that foster intersocial group skills.
From 1990 to 1994, the YO held its annual spring benefit in the Winnetka Historical Museum when the museum was located at the Skokie School. Those Saturday afternoon affairs were held in conjunction with special Historical Society exhibits of great interest to YO supporters. One such 1992 benefit honored Mrs. Gertrude Nielsen, a long time YO supporter.
The YO enjoys support from local churches, banks, the Winnetka Woman’s Club, the Villages of Wilmette and Winnetka, our Park District, New Trier Township and the United Way. Extensive information provided to the Township and United Way assures contributions are effectively spent against clearly defined mission statements and planned outcomes. However, contributions from individuals have always been the backbone of YO support. These come primarily through a winter fundraising letter and the annual spring benefit at the Winnetka Woman’s Club.
Some of the teens from the early days of the YO have settled in Winnetka and are raising families. There is a second generation of YO users are on the doorstep. The YO is proud to continue its service to the community’s high school students.