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On Aug. 4, Karen Cohen Dinelli loaded up a truck and closed the door to Parent Day Out (PDO) for the final time.
For more than 22 years, Ms. Dinelli served as the director of the parent-run, cooperative playschool for children ages 2 to 5. During that time, both Ms. Dinelli and Parent Day Out became familiar to and loved by Evanston institutions, serving an estimated 800 families.
But last fall Ms. Dinelli learned she was losing her lease at the McGaw Y, which needed the classroom to accommodate its own growing program. Ms. Dinelli immediately began searching for a new space, but the task proved more difficult than she had initially imagined.
Costs, safety regulations, and concerns about the overall atmosphere of a space created a unique set of demands. Ultimately, there were too many roadblocks. In the spring, Ms. Dinelli announced that Parent Day Out would be closing.
The news was met with shock and tears.
Established in 1980, Parent Day Out grew out of Covenant Nursery School in northwest Evanston. Like the nursery school, it was originally housed in the Covenant United Methodist Church, at the corner of Harrison Street and Hartrey Avenue and later moved to the space at the McGaw Y.
Like so many of Evanston’s daycare centers and preschools, Parent Day Out was born from a love for children and recognition that children as well as parents benefit from time apart. The program provided a creative and nurturing place for toddlers and preschoolers to imagine, create, and explore in a mixed-age classroom.
Yet Parent Day Out was different in that it was a co-op. The co-op provided a way to keep program costs minimal and afford parents the ability to participate in their children’s learning and socialization. It also provided something few other schools can offer: flexibility.
Childcare for an unexpected doctor’s checkup or job interview often could be settled with the click of an email and a check made out to the parent selling his or her child’s day.
In exchange for this flexibility, parents underwent a background check and agreed to work in the classroom alongside Ms. Dinelli and their child one day per session.
The parent’s working day was known as the child’s “special day.” Children were excited to show mom or dad all the things they regularly did at the program, from imaginative play and building with blocks, to singing and dancing, to gross motor play.
And parents were eager to see their child “in action” and becoming part of a community of close-knit families.
It was the families who brought Ms. Dinelli to (and kept her at) Parent Day Out.
In 1994, she heard the program was searching for a new director and jumped at the chance to fill the position.
A Skokie native, she brought a degree in early childhood education and years of experience working in classrooms–first as a demonstration teacher in the preschool program at Oakton Community College, and later as a Gymboree music and movement teacher.
Notably, she also brought two hand-constructed wagons, each replete with seat belts and wooden benches that held up to six children.
Never one to shy away from an adventure, even in cold weather, Ms. Dinelli carted the kids all over town in these wagons. In the summer months, she and the wagons could be found at the lakefront, in countless parks, and at the downtown Burger King, where she would acquire paper crowns and ice cream for each child.
The wagons were known to stop people in their tracks around town: it was remarkable to see an adult pushing a small caravan of happy children in one of these large contraptions.
With the help of devoted parents, Ms. Dinelli served as the program’s director, teacher, fundraiser, and tireless advocate.
She woke early every Monday through Friday to make a cold lunch for herself, wheel out her wagons from storage, set up crafts and activities, clean toys, replenish diapers, trade out seasonal books, respond to parent calls and emails, hang up children’s pictures on lockers, and greet each caregiver and child by name.
Parents joked that they went home after their work day, poured themselves a glass of wine, and lay on the couch.
Not Ms. Dinelli. Frequently, she exercised in the morning before school and went to ballgames and concerts after school. During her so-called vacations, she often took care of families currently or formerly enrolled in the program or went on adventures with her friends, sisters, or son Steve.
When word spread that Parent Day Out would be closing, current families created a book of cards and memories, and alumni of the program took to social media to express their love and gratitude to Ms. Dinelli. Time and again, families remarked that Ms. Dinelli had played an important role in their lives.
And now, after decades, Parent Day Out has closed.
Those families who missed the news may be happy to know that Ms. Dinelli is now active on Facebook. “I was slow to join in,” she said, “but I’m here now. Thank you for all the love, kindness, generosity, and most of all, hugs.”
Friends and family of Parent Day Out are gathering on Sept. 27 to share food and stories at a park. More details will appear at pdoevanston.org as the date approaches.
As for Ms. Dinelli, she has no plans to slow down. In a few weeks’ time, she and her son are taking a trip to Iceland. When she returns, she will go to work as a teacher at Covenant Nursery School.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve worked with other teachers,” she said. “I think the opportunity to work with friends [at Covenant] will be great. I’ve known them forever. It doesn’t feel like a job.”
Then she laughs. “I’ve come full circle.