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Clock ticking on Chicago Ridge youth commission

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Updated: January 31, 2014 6:06AM



Time is running out for the Chicago Ridge Youth and Family Commission that has been a part of the village since 1976.

Hank Zwirkoski, a licensed therapist, has headed the commission since its inception. It has been in its current location — its fifth in 37 years — in the village hall basement since 2000. But now Zwirkoski is not sure where the service, which provides free counseling for youths and families, will wind up. Or even if counseling will continue.

“We provide crisis intervention, counseling, a drop-in center, some education, outreach, referrals,” he said in the spacious counseling room at the center.

But he won’t be there long.

The village board in October voted unanimously to end its affiliation with the service and told Zwirkoski that the commission had until Dec. 31 to move out of the village hall.

Zwirkoski was surprised by the news but noted that the counseling service has not been affiliated with the village government since budget cutbacks in 2009. That, Mayor Chuck Tokar said, is the source of the problem. With no board members acting as a liaison between the village and the service, there’s no official connection between the two. That worries the board and the mayor.

When contacted about the issue Dec. 23, Tokar at first said he had no comment about the impending breakup, saying the move “is an old, old story.

“The board has discussed it at more than one open meeting and decided unanimously that the space he occupied in the basement of the village hall would have to be vacated. He was given plenty of notice,” Tokar said.

“You’ve got to understand what the board is looking at here. It’s not a commission of the village. It’s not a village organization. Yet they’re operating out of the village’s address. And it’s a service that is totally unsupervised. Nobody overlooks what goes on in those offices and the potential for liability in a lawsuit against the village is enormous,” Tokar said.

Zwirkoski, of Oak Lawn, has been counseling 25 to 30 individuals every month since 2009 pro bono, meaning he is not paid for his services. He has work outside Chicago Ridge in Indiana that he counts on for an income.

Since the village is only out “the space, the phone line and the Internet,” he can’t see why the counseling service needs to find a new home.

“We have no budget. We haven’t had one since ‘09. We established a youth commission then and I’ve been pro bono since mid-’09. We thought the worst was over in 2009,” Zwirkoski said.

“When the village ceased to fund us, the village attorney raised the question of my being a liability operating here because I’m no longer an employee. To me, you can figure out a way to get that (insurance) coverage. So the youth and family commission was developed,” Zwirkoski said.

“We got a letter in October (from Village Clerk George Schleyer) that said the commission was ended and the board wanted it out of the village hall by Dec. 31 and that I was no longer the youth commissioner,” he said.

The board has been more than generous with Zwirkoski, Tokar said.

“It has not been an arm of the village for years. It’s been a long time. The board agreed to let him stay down there. The board finally said, ‘Does the village carry insurance on them?’ You know if there was a problem, the village would be sued big-time,” Tokar said.

It’s possible the police department or emergency services could occupy the space that consists of an office, two meeting rooms, a kitchen and rest room, Tokar said. No decisions have been made, he said.

Tokar expressed disappointment that Zwirkoski didn’t alert the media until a few weeks before the deadline, saying, “He has known about this for a long time.

“I don’t think the village has been the bad guy at all. It’s been rent-free for at least four years. The board bent over backward (to help the youth commission),” Tokar said. “The writing was on the wall for a number of months.”

Zwirkoski said he’s had “no face-to-face conversation regarding this rather monumental change for us.

“We don’t have a place yet. We’re working on some ideas. We don’t have a lot of funds. We hope to find space locally, but we don’t know yet. And there is no youth and family commission any more. In a village where people count, we got a vacate order,” he said.

Zwirkoski had hoped to bring on a younger counselor and groom him or her to take over the job. That plan is on hold.

“For me, it’s sad. Working with people and seeing needs met ... I was hoping for a bright future,” he said. “Maybe they’re doing me a personal favor because I’d probably have to be carried out of here.”



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