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After Nearly Two Years, FORA Will Move into Chicago’s Old Northtown Library 


Chicago’s Northtown Public library combatted illiteracy and gave community members access to seemingly endless rows of books for 57 years. Located in the West Ridge neighborhood, the library also helped the area’s growing population of immigrants and refugees connect to both the familiar and unfamiliar through books and community events. 


After its closure, the once bustling library became an aging artifact representing the opportunities it gave thousands of community members to read books ranging from love stories to sci-fi. 


But in early 2022, the City of Chicago announced the old Northtown branch would be up for auction. 


For FORA, cofounders Michael and Kathleen O’ Connor saw the library as a new way to forge opportunities for refugees in America. 


“Generations of immigrants came to that library to learn to read and write and we will continue that tradition with refugee students coming to FORA,” Kathleen O’Connor, FORA co-founder and Director of Education, said in a previous post to FORA’s Updates


In June 2022, the City of Chicago announced the old Northtown library branch would become FORA’s.


“My first thought was ‘YES! This is going to be a game changer for the children of FORA,”’ said Michael O’ Connor, FORA’s co-founder and Managing Director. 


Like any person who found out they had just bought a 11,700-square foot building, the shock set in. 


“My second thought was ‘Oops. Did we bid too much?’” he said. “But when I heard the runner up's bid was, I thought ‘No, we did not bid too much!’ I also reminded myself that our internal appraised ‘as is’ value was more than 50% higher than the price we paid. We got a great deal.” 


But it wasn’t until May 2023 when FORA staff unlocked the front doors of the library for the first time.  


The library’s foundation sat untouched for three years after its closure. Ventilation ducts became homes to squirrels, paint chipped and walls faced Chicago’s frigid winters and scorching summers without protection from ventilation. In short, the library was in need of some tender love and care. 


And that’s when Chicago architecture firm Perkins&Will stepped in, offering to help FORA free of charge. 


Reviving the once bustling library wasn’t the only challenge. O’ Connor said navigating city bureaucracy was new terrain. 


“Figuring out the city's bureaucracy was challenging,” he said. “City officials said that this was the first city building put up for sale to a nonprofit that had a competitive auction in more than the collective memory of employees who worked at City Hall for more than 30 years. So the process was not clear from the start for anybody, including city officials. So we all worked together to figure out the process.”


Despite the challenges, O’ Connor said FORA was not alone. 


 “We could not have done this without our pro bono lawyer, Thomas Raines, our pro bono architect, Perkins&Will, our pro bono environmental engineer, Salas O'Brien, and our at cost general contractor, Bulley and Andrews,” O’ Connor said. “I would have been forever stuck in a morass of red tape without them.”


After nearly one year after the City announced FORA as the winning bidder, the nonprofit which went from serving five students to over 100 students opened the doors to the now vault of books and memories. 


The first order of business? To show all the students their new space. 


“The children were jubilant,” O’ Connor said. “They ran around and around and around like children do. In the dark! Screaming about a ‘scary doll’ that had been left in the library. Someone with the scary doll was chasing the kids all over the place. Adults were shining their phones' flashlights all over the place.”


Instantly, O’ Connor was brought back to watching his own children growing up. 


“I remembered nights of my own youth playing flashlight tag in the dark and catching and releasing fireflies,” he said.  “All kids should have memories of unabashed joy. That was a night of total joy. I think they will remember that night for the rest of their lives. I know that I will.”


After months of both progress and tribulations, FORA’s library is set to open just in time for the upcoming summer tutoring session in June 2024. 


To students, it may mean a vast space to run around in. But to staff, volunteers and supporters, it means the ability to forge more opportunities for refugees in America. 



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