Monday Bamgbose (center), a staff member in the city’s youth and young adult division, poses with youth volunteers Demitri Moore, left, and Kris Kelly, right, as they hand out free popcorn to carnival attendees. Credit: Duncan Agnew

More than 1,000 Evanston residents – including elementary schoolers, middle schoolers, high schoolers and adults alike – came out to the recently-renovated Robert Crown Community Center on Sunday afternoon for a carnival featuring games, raffle prizes, bouncy castles, crafts and free food.

The first-of-its-kind event was also the first major community gathering hosted at Robert Crown since its official reopening in October 2020. With most of the community vaccinated against COVID-19 and case numbers currently low, the carnival offered a great opportunity to bring people from all over Evanston together again during the first days of the new school year.

The event was also free, and kids got the chance to try ice skating, play basketball or ping-pong and enjoy hot dogs, hamburgers and popcorn cooked up by volunteers and staff from both Robert Crown and the city’s youth and young adult division.

“It just feels like a community again. With distancing and virtual this and virtual that, only a certain amount of people could come in at a time, not the whole community could come and actually enjoy what we had and see what we had to offer,” said Robert Crown Program Supervisor Adam Eberhardt. “It’s a good way to start the school year.”

City staff and volunteers also said the turnout from the community was much larger than expected, and, in the future, the community center wants to go even bigger with more food and more activities, according to Eberhardt, Program Coordinator Amanda D’Agostino and Assistant Program Coordinator Gladys Flores.

Attendees who checked in with D’Agostino and Flores at the front table just inside the entrance to Robert Crown received a free raffle ticket that they could enter to win one of five different prizes, which included a salsa dance class, a pottery class, a gym pass, youth program registration and a public ice skating pass. The renovated community center features two ice rinks, a gym, turf playing fields outside, a public library and a number of multipurpose rooms and offices.

One of those offices houses the Open Studio Project, a local nonprofit headquartered on Sherman Avenue that uses art to teach “personal growth, social-emotional learning, and community well-being,” according to its website. The group set up a table with arts and crafts opportunities for kids during Sunday’s carnival, and it is also hosting free open studio nights for local teens from 6 to 9 p.m. every Friday night starting Sept. 9 in the Robert Crown front lobby, according to Executive Director and Art Therapist Sarah Laing.

Laing and her team opened a studio last year at Evanston Township High School that operated five days a week as a resource for students transitioning back to in-person school amid the pandemic. Additionally, the Open Studio Project now has a location in the Family Focus building on Dewey Avenue, which is also set to be renovated over the next few years thanks to federal pandemic-relief funding.

“It’s been buzzing [today], I’d say,” Laing said. “One of the reasons we’re here is to bring awareness to people. With the pandemic, we literally opened the program here at the start of the pandemic, so it never gave us a chance to spread the word that we’re here, but it’s picking up, and we did a really full summer camp program here. So we’re just looking to make more connections with families to let them know that we’re here.”

Volunteers and staff agreed that people were excited for a fresh start this year after a long and challenging few years in Evanston and around the world. D’Agostino and Flores said the free event attracted a huge and diverse crowd of kids, teens and adults from all over the city who are involved in many different community organizations, as well, and they hope to use that momentum to continue putting on popular public events and community gatherings.

“People seemed relaxed. They were able to actually unwind and come in, hang out with their family, not have to worry about how much the food costs or how much this activity is going to be,” D’Agostino said. “So you can actually see them settle in and relax and get to know people. I’ve seen some introductions happen, some play dates get set up, so it’s been cool to see.”

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...