PILSEN — A half-century ago, when he was just 6 years old, Craig Labus remembers learning how to play chess and checkers at what is now the Union League Boys and Girls Clubs at 2157 W. 19th St.
“What I remember is, it was glue to all of us kids. Cause, you know, this isn’t the best neighborhood,” said Labus, who grew up a block away from the club.
At a ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday, Labus' name was featured on a plaque at the club, along with the names of several others who helped raise private funds and complete a $5.2 million renovation of the 130-year-old building.
The facility now features a science lab, dance studio and weight room, as well as air conditioning and updated heating and ventilation. The construction more than doubled the size of the old club to 34,000 square feet.
One of three Union League Club locations in Chicago, the Pilsen building serves an estimated 3,253 youths per year.
At the ceremony, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said she saw the renovation as a neighborhood strengthener.
“We clearly need activities in schools, but we also need activities in neighborhoods and communities, and this kind of investment pays off tremendously in the long run,” she said.
Labus, 58, was on the building committee for the renovation, and Michael Chioros chaired the 10-year project. Chioros remembers being turned off by the club when he first walked into the building years ago.
“I walked in the first time and said, ‘This place is someplace I would not want my children to be, even though we’re doing great things. We’ve got to fix it,’” Chioros recalled.
Until now, the club’s science program, started by Carolyn Jahn, had been held at the Barreto branch of the Boys and Girls Club due to the Pilsen location’s lack of a proper space.
Jahn now says she’s excited for the kids to start experimenting in the club’s new science lab, which has many of the same amenities found in a professional research lab.
“You have to catch the kids early before they go to high school so that they understand how much math and science preparation you need for those kinds of careers,” said Jahn, an associate professor in cell and molecular biology at Northwestern University.
The new facility, Chioros said, will have a positive impact on Pilsen for decades to come.
“This will be something that has a presence in the community for 100 years,” he said.