What strikes you first are the portraits. They are everywhere. A hand-tinted black and white image from the 1930s of a shy eyed boy and his pup … a vibrant ‘60s Kodachrome of a family in matching outfits … a sepia-toned snapshot of blond-curled twins sitting on porch steps … digital prints of a beaming trans-cultural family holding up blanket-swaddled twins and a laughing same-sex couple showing off a tiny girl with a mass of dark, curly hair. Each of these joy-filled shots represents another of the more than 15,000 adoptions facilitated by Evanston’s The Cradle—the only adoption agency in the country with its own on-site nursery.
“And the collection of photographs just keeps growing,” smiles Penelope Boardman, board member and co-chair with Jane Cummins for this year’s “Rock the Cradle Gala.”
Just now, Boardman, Cummins, and Sarah O’Donnell, vice president of development and marketing, are leading a tour through the facility, pointing out a wide array of features. Since it opened in 1923, the original building has continually been upgraded and expanded to make space for changing needs. There are family rooms where match meetings and home study sessions with counselors take place. There are rooms for visits between expectant moms and social workers. There are offices for the Cradle’s management staff, clinical supervisors, counselors, and therapists, and the living room with plush red sofa where the traditional baby’s first photo with adoptive parents is taken. The Ardythe and Gale Sayers Center dedicated to meeting the adoption needs of the African American community is here, plus much more.
Pausing upstairs at the nursery, it’s hard to step away from the window where one of the Cradle’s “cuddlers” (carefully vetted volunteers who come in to hold babies) is bouncing a baby boy, his brown eyes huge, focusing one at time on each of us.
“That gets me every time,” says Cummins, an adoptive parent herself. “It’s really at the heart of what we do.”
Maintaining a nursery staffed by licensed clinical nurses, baby care specialists, and volunteers truly does set the Cradle apart from any other adoption agency in America. Equipped to care for up to 20 infants at a time, the nursery usually has between 6 and 8 babies on a daily basis, some with significant medical issues, tended until all find permanent placement in loving homes.
But to stretch the metaphor further, if the nursery is The Cradle’s heart, the educational programs it shapes, counseling it offers, and events it hosts are the eyes, ears, fingers and toes of the operation, stretching out to serve the ever-evolving needs of adoptive families, and professionals locally and nationwide.
Two years ago, The Cradle’s board sought out Kim Perez, a leader in the nonprofit and social service realm, to become the Cradle’s new president and CEO, spearheading a restructuring process to craft strategic priorities through the 21st century and beyond. “The Cradle has always been one of the nation’s leading adoption agencies in the quality and breadth of services offered,” says Perez. “But as we move forward it’s vital that we find ways to stay relevant and to meet the evolving needs of families today.”
With technological advances, the Cradle is aware that the way people seek out information about adoption options has evolved. As well, at the same time that birth rates in America have dropped, along with some of the stigma surrounding single-parent households, the need for parenting support and education, child advocacy and training courses, has increased.
Augmenting the wide array of online classes The Cradle offers through its Adoption Learning Partners educational program, The Cradle has expanded its focus to address the complex issues around raising children in today’s society, through live roundtable events. The new initiative, “Our Children: An Education and Empowerment Series” has already had on its roundtable roster topics such as “Raising Black Children Across Racial Lines,” “LGBTQ Parenting” and “The Color of Education.”
“We are now celebrating our 95th year,” says Perez. “Which is such a milestone. And as we move toward our 100th anniversary, creating and cultivating new community relationships and opening minds to the sorts of family-building and relationship-strengthening programs that will make The Cradle sustainable for another 100 years, is what we are all about.”
Operating all of these initiatives takes significant financial resources—it costs $2,000 a day to operate the nursery alone, without any government funding.
Aiding fundraising, the Cradle annually hosts its signature “Rock The Cradle Gala,” this year happening Saturday, October 20 at Wintrust’s Grand Banking Hall in Chicago. Including a cocktail reception, live and silent auctions, plus a raffle for tickets to the 2019 Broadway in Chicago production of Dear Evan Hansen, this year’s event will include a dinner program highlighting some of the many accomplishments achieved since the Cradle’s launch 95 years ago.