UPTOWN — For the American Indian Center of Chicago, this winter has been harder than most.
The center, 1630 W. Wilson Ave., which has catered to the needs of Chicago’s Native American community since 1953, saw its heating system break down in early December.
Many of its usual activities, such as cultural education courses, native arts classes, health and wellness screenings, a Thursday food pantry and its communal swap meet, were stalled or slowed as a result.
The weekly community senior lunch, which normally takes place every Wednesday, was particularly affected. Though according to the center’s director, Andrew Johnson, only one luncheon was cancelled, it took a great deal of effort to make just the dining space livable.
“We’re able to get heat to some rooms now, thanks to some last-minute efforts” he said. “But we still can’t heat the entire building.”
In some rooms, space heaters are helping.
The situation includes not only a faulty boiler but also problems with the heating ducts and is expected to cost over $120,000 to remedy, according to Johnson.
Johnson wonders if it might be more economical to move to a new facility than stay in the aging building, a pre-World War II Masonic temple.
“It’s kind of a catch-22,” he said. “On the one hand, we’d love to reach out to sponsors and say, we need a new boiler, but now… we don’t know if we’re going to stay in this building.”
The dilemma has some of the center’s patrons and staff worried, as many local seniors depend on its food pantry and lunches to bolster their weekly grocery needs. Some might not be unable to follow if the center moved to a new location.
“The problem is, where is [the new location] going to be?” asked Jerry Jenkins, a regular of the weekly luncheons and resident of Edgewater. “If it’s somewhere accessible, it doesn’t matter. But further west…”
Still, Johnson believes that a newer building could potentially better serve the Native American — and Chicago — community. Regardless if the boiler is repaired or a new location is selected, he said the center needs more money.
“Right now we’re primarily dependent on [federal, state, and county] grants,” he said. “But we need to reach out to more corporate sponsors and private donors.” When asked which groups in particular he would like to ask for support from, he responded: “Everybody.”
Despite its current financial and heating crisis, though, there is little indication that the American Indian Center will be ending its operations any time soon. Much of the center’s day-to-day operations continue despite the heating problems.
“There is an incredible resilience here,” said Johnson. “We have a dedicated staff and it’s thanks to them that we’ve been able to keep everything going.”
Many center personnel were working in the food pantry and at the luncheon on Wednesday despite the cold, and senior patrons also pledged their own support, should the situation eventually call for it.
“We cannot let anything happen to the American Indian Center,” said 62-year-old Ronald Schupp, a center regular since 2006. “It is an important part of the community and it must survive… If it comes down to it, I’ll do whatever I can to help.”
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