By Cheryl Muñoz, founder of the Sugar Beet Cooperative
I attached the bike rack to the car and the bike to the rack and we set off, my toddler and I, to explore Oak Park. I was scouting for a new “nest” for my little family after learning that I was pregnant with our second child. The drive from our home in Pilsen was less than 20 minutes but when we arrived at Harrison and Austin it seemed as if we were a world away… and that was what I wanted.
The trees—the TREES!—made an impression on me right away. It was summertime and everything was bright and lush. (I half-joke that I named our boy “Cedar” because I long to be surrounded by trees.) Oak Park is now a designated Arboretum due to the diversity and abundance of beautiful trees.
Cedar and I stopped at several playgrounds and we were both excited about the fun tot lots and parks that seemed to be spread throughout the village. While Cedar made new friends on the playground, I had the chance to meet other parents and ask them about Oak Park. Education and opportunities for children to learn and be part of the community were outstanding, they all agreed. They filled me in on Oak Park’s diversity, the many preschools and park district programs that were available to families, as well as a kids’ museum called Wonder Works, three incredible libraries, and two outdoor pools. I was falling in love with this little village.
My husband, Anthony, called me from work to see how my house hunting was going. I remember saying, “It seems that there are no houses for sale here. It’s so lovely that no one wants to leave!”
From his desk, he did a quick MLS search and found many houses listed and we realized that “for sale” signs were discouraged. While many of the homes for sale at the time were out of our budget, my pregnancy hormones kicked in and I announced, “I don’t care if we have to pitch a tent in a playground, we are moving to Oak Park.”
Fast forward five years and we are not living in a tent, but in a bungalow in northeast Oak Park on a gorgeous tree-lined street. Cedar, now 7, walks the two blocks to Whittier Elementary with his friends and baby #2, Cora, now 5, attends a fantastic preschool while I work from home on my project, Sugar Beet Food Co-op.
We have found an incredible community here of like-minded people, who value education, the arts, social and environmental issues, diversity, and healthy living. Our community of friends and neighbors, along with the support of our accessible village government, is what inspired me to begin the long process of building the Sugar Beet Food Co-op, a full-service grocery store to open July 2015 at Madison and Oak Park Avenues. Our store is owned by over 1,000 families and will serve as a local marketplace for small family farmers and producers. The Co-op will be a one-stop shop with an incredible bulk section, coffee and juice bar, and the best produce in town. Any one can shop the co-op, but members will receive discounts and other perks.
Over the last three years as we have developed the Sugar Beet Food Co-op, I have met many people in our community who are leading creative and solution-based initiatives that address issues from hunger to pollinator habitats. They are doing the kind of work that both gives me hope and puts our village on the map as a place that fosters creative solutions and community-based efforts.
Of all that I love about Oak Park, though, it really is through the lens of my children that I truly appreciate the place that we call home.
This past Sunday morning started early with an 8 am volunteer shift at our school garden. Organized by the Whittier Green Team, volunteers showed up with tools to take on the weeds, clean the raised beds and mulch the garden for the season. Cedar and Cora worked alongside their diverse group of teachers, friends, and neighbors as they took care of their school. They were excited to use garden tools and be responsible for tasks and they were visibly proud that they made a contribution to the beauty of their school garden. I am grateful that our community provides opportunities for my family to be productive and work together.
After we cleaned up a bit we headed across the street to the park for Cedar’s soccer game. On the way, I knocked on a neighbor’s door to see if their daughter could come over to the field to play with Cora. “Of course” they said as their little girl put on her shoes. We held hands as we crossed the street and the girls ran off to play. I appreciate the familiar relationships we have with our neighbors. It’s comforting to know that we are part of a community of families that support each other. My kids feel “at home” here.
In the afternoon we drove down to southeast Oak Park where Cora goes to preschool at Oak Park Friends. The school is moving from the teachers’ homes to a much larger space with a garden, outdoor play area, and several light-filled classrooms. With the help of the Village of Oak Park, they have been able to build a business that both provides meaningful work and income for many teachers but also provides a much-needed service to local families. It feels amazing that my family got to help a little to make it happen, too.
More than watching the trees come into bloom each Spring, it is exciting to see all that is happening now in the Village of Oak Park. Spearheaded by local thought leaders and business people in every sector, our Village is alive with successful programs and services. Supported by a village of heart strong and generous people, we are continually building the community that we want to live in.