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Meet Debbie Frisch of HelloBaby in Woodlawn

Today we’d like to introduce you to Debbie Frisch.

So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
I retired from the workforce at the ripe old age of 29 to stay home and raise my two biological daughters. When they entered full day school, I began the search for something meaningful to do with my new found time. Thus, began my 20-year journey of service to under-resourced families with young children. I’ve been a not-for-profit volunteer, board director, board officer, and (probably most significantly) a foster mother. I have been blessed to have had 56 children between birth to 5 years in my care. In this, I found the mission that I was put here on earth to follow.

I fell head over heels in love with each child who came into my care. I also quickly learned that in order to support a child, I needed to embrace his entire family. We always welcomed families of the children we cared for into our home and we were frequent visitors to theirs as well. Many of these relationships continue to enrich our lives.

Through this experience, I saw firsthand the gaps in our social service system and the challenges families living in neighborhoods impacted by poverty face. When I received an unexpected inheritance, I knew I could grow this mission to reach more families. Instead of bringing the babies into our home, it was my turn to travel to where the need was the greatest. HelloBaby was born.

Due to neighborhood violence, economic challenges, and overwhelmed caregivers, I knew of many children who didn’t have healthy, safe opportunities for play. Research shows that the early years of a child’s life are the most developmentally crucial. At 3 years of age, 80% of a child’s brain development has occurred. And when children start behind, they tend to stay behind. In low-income neighborhoods, children start kindergarten 60% behind their peers in affluent communities. Children also need interaction with other children to know how to make, be, and keep a friend. Social skills provide the foundation for success in school and beyond.

Given this, my vision was a drop-in play space for children from birth to 3 years accompanied by a caregiver. My goals were twofold: the first was to offer a safe, happy space where children could play with each other. In the words of the great Mr. Rogers, “Play is the work of childhood.” The second goal was to address the social isolation that often comes with parenting – especially when caregivers don’t have the resources they need. The mothers I’ve worked with over the years overwhelmingly describe themselves as lonely, helpless, and hopeless. I knew that connections among mothers ease the burdens and isolation of parenting. I wanted caregivers to share the joys, challenges, and worries of raising children and help to lift each other up.

I ran this concept by my friend, Shannon Gedey, who is a medical architect in Perkins + Will’s Chicago office. Happily, Perkins + Will agreed to design our space pro bono as part of their social responsibility initiative. As a result, we are the first free-standing, free of charge drop-in play space in the nation.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
I had thought our biggest obstacles would emerge from operating in a neighborhood facing the challenges of poverty. We were as prepared as we could be to deal with issues resulting from gangs, crime, and violence, I am so happy to share that our neighbors are the most wonderful people in the world. We have been welcomed, supported, embraced and protected. It is a blessing and a joy to partner with the families we serve and we have loved becoming a hub in the community.

It shocks and saddens me to report that our greatest hardship opening and operating our NFP organization has been our interactions with the City of Chicago – across the board and on almost every level that our paths intersect. Zoning was a boondoggle which cost us months and months of time and thousands of dollars in legal and professional fees – money that could have gone directly to serving the community. Our experience with the Chicago Police Department is that they are dissmissive and unresponsive. And then, in January 2018, a 5-month road construction project commenced which fully disrupted car and foot traffic and largely blocked our entrance. This forced us to close many days and to reduce our hours for weeks when safe access to HelloBaby was impossible. Luckily, this project started after we had gotten traction in the community. It has been amazing to witness the efforts our guests have made to get to us. A for-profit business likely would not have survived this experience. We are very confident street blockages of this magnitude and duration would never occur on the north side of our city.

We are thankful for our 20th Ward Alderman, Willie Cochran, who has been our strong advocate throughout as we navigate these challenges.

So, as you know, we’re impressed with HelloBaby – tell our readers more, for example, what you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others.
Our intention was to honor the neighborhood with a beautiful and inviting space, and we have. Since our opening in July 2017, HelloBaby has become a beacon of light and hope and is drawing families from all over the south side of Chicago.

In a few months time, children have reached new milestones, caregivers from different socio-economic backgrounds have connected and created community, social service referrals have been provided, clothes, toys, and diapers have been distributed, and meaningful enrichment programs have been implemented. We are energized by the children that visit and inspired by the caregivers who share their experiences.

One of our tasks was to bring child and caregiver together through play. Our design does the job of scaffolding play – providing visual prompts that make an easy springboard for imaginative adventures without over-stimulating. We have dynamic cozy nook at the front window where parents connect over tummy time and toddlers bring smiles to passerby with impromptu window-front puppet shows. Rainbow colored toddler-height toy cubbies empowering toddlers and spark opportunities for parents to teach color names. Colorful and tactile flooring delineates zones, creating visual barriers instead of physical ones to give children an opportunity to practice following the rules. A collaborative slate art wall gives even the youngest guests opportunities to exercise the art of sharing: making, keeping, and being a friend. This is the work of childhood.

The result is an innovative and fun response to the needs of urban families; a vibrant space that has garnered love from our guests, and was just honored with a ReDesign Award for Social Sustainability from AIGA. As far as we know it is the only free playspace of its kind, anywhere. A typical review on social media says, “This is a needed space for the neighborhood. An amazing environment for children to grow with phenomenal staff. My daughter really enjoyed playing. Thank you for this incredible space on the Southside of Chicago.”

So, what’s next? Any big plans?
Our plan is to put more HelloBaby’s into neighborhoods that need them. We are currently scouting Westside Chicago locations. Just as a neighborhood without healthy food options is known as a food desert, we are the change agent in areas rife with play deserts. Perkins + Will created a fun and successful template from which we can thrive and grow. This is no ordinary space and that has made all the difference.

Contact Info:

  • Address: 600 E. 61st Street
    Chicago, IL 60637
  • Website: hellobabychgo.org
  • Phone: 773 280 5613
  • Email: Debbie@hellobabychgo.org
  • Instagram: hellobabychgo
  • Facebook: HelloBaby@hellobabychgo
  • Twitter: Hellobaby@hellobabychgo

Image Credit:
Susan Andrews

Getting in touch: VoyageChicago is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

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