Barb LaFasto played competitive basketball from eighth grade until the age of 31. Defense was her specialty, her strength. Shutting down, and utterly frustrating, the opposition’s top scorer thrilled her.
Her teammates jumped and aimed and fired.
“I was not an all-around basketball player,” LaFasto, now 60 and a 25-year resident of Lake Forest, recalls. “That’s why I found myself sitting on the bench my freshman year at Western Illinois University. Two weeks in, I left the team and played intramurals.”
LaFasto battled and collected countless steals in women’s basketball leagues for many years after college. Defense was still her thing in the fourth quarter of her basketball career.
But, on a night in 2012, she resorted to an aggressive, inspired brand of offense off the court at The Silo in Lake Bluff. A table at the restaurant served as the spot where a squad of six selfless folks ordered a pitcher of Blue Moon beer and came up with the blueprint for Beacon Place, a neighborhood community center in Waukegan, with programs for children’s families that focus on academic growth, improved health, and building the skills that allow individuals and families to see their own path to a brighter tomorrow.
LaFasto spoke at The Silo. LaFasto listened at The Silo.
Perhaps she jotted notes on pizza-stained napkins.
LaFasto had become a sitting, full-blown “point guard”—with a scorer’s mentality and dynamic leadership skills.
“I’d been helping at a food pantry in Waukegan, and I’d see the same families visit every month,” says LaFasto, one of eight co-founders of Beacon Place. “I, in no way, thought we could end poverty. But my thinking was, ‘We have to do what we can to at least break the cycle of poverty for many in Waukegan.’ An education component had to be a part of Beacon Place’s mission, because I was able to break the cycle of my poverty, through education, when I was young.”
LaFasto attended school in Chicago for a few years before moving and enrolling at Irving Crown High School (now Dundee-Crown HS) in Carpentersville. Whip-smart and feisty, she aced class after class without having to do much homework and ended up graduating 10th in her class of 365.
Male basketball players, struggling with math at Crown, were able to graduate on time, thanks, in part, to assists from a hoopster/tutor named Barb.
“I remember a meeting I had with my guidance counselor, Mr. Finnegan, a funny and easygoing man,” LaFasto says. “He looked at my class rank and knew I belonged in college. We talked about colleges. He helped me apply to colleges. When I got home that day, I told my parents about what Mr. Finnegan and I had discussed in his office. My mom [the late Evelyn] laughed. Later, my dad [the late Jim] asked me, ‘How do you intend to pay for college?’ ”
Jim’s determined daughter paid for college, working the 11 p.m.-7 a.m. weekend shifts at a plastics factory. That same daughter earned a Master of Science in Industrial Relations at Loyola University.
LaFasto mentions the name Elizabeth, a Waukegan High School graduate (ranked No. 3 in her class of 1,000) and one of Beacon Place’s many success stories. She’s a sophomore with a full-ride scholarship at Lake Forest College, majoring in psychology. Beacon Place helped Elizabeth and her parents navigate the oftchoppy waters of the college-application process.
LaFasto mentions others from the other end of the academic spectrum, but not by name. Too many, sadly. An alarming 74 percent of high school students in Waukegan are not considered ready for college. Beacon Place vies to shrink that statistic, persistently and resolutely. Important components of Beacon Place’s “Grow/ Discover/Succeed” programs—opportunities that have served some 4,000 children and their families since 2012—are food, nutrition, and fitness. A total of 570 children and adults registered for Beacon Place programs in 2019. Nearly 700 volunteers delivered a combined 10,600 hours of service last year.
You can’t dream a brighter future if you don’t begin to change your path today, Beacon Place firmly believes. Another tenet: You can’t learn and change if you’re hungry
Beacon Place’s executive director from 2016 -2019 and board president (2015-16, 2019), LaFasto teaches a range of subjects at the center these days, including social and emotional classes for sixth- and seventh-graders, and wears more hats at the place than most milliners handle in a fiscal year. She’s helping a boy tackle and appreciate To Kill a Mockingbird—LaFasto’s favorite book and movie.
“I treat all kids at Beacon Place as if they were mine,” says LaFasto, the mother of five and a former human resources and compensation management professional at Rust-Oleum, Baxter Healthcare, and Hewitt Associates (she met her future husband, Frank, at Baxter). “But we’re an organization that helps more than children. We’re there to help the family unit, to help parents set the path for their children. We let the parents know the options for their children. The parents and the children have to do the hard work; we’re there to guide them and support them along the way.
“Parental engagement,” she adds, “is our secret sauce.”
And the fee paid by Beacon Place parents isn’t a fee at all. Twelve mothers, LaFasto reports, gathered recently on a Saturday to clean Beacon Place’s blue house, top to bottom. Older Beacon Place kids give back by volunteering at reading sessions for younger Beacon Place kids. Many end up being looked upon as mentors, after a chapter or two.
Beacon Place relies on 10-12 parents and at least 50 teens each summer to volunteer daily inside a place that consistently exceeds San Diego in annual sunny forecasts.
Beacon Place’s vision for Waukegan’s underserved?
It’s clear. It’s admirable.
It’s transforming lives.
Here it is: “Beacon Place families will live more fulfilled lives and positively impact the community around them.”
“Beacon Place,” LaFasto says, “is a special place, an amazing place, and it’s serving people who live only 20 minutes from Lake Forest. The kids there, the family units, they’re all working incredibly hard.”
For more information about Beacon Place, visit beacon-place.org.