Anchoring a Community

By Katie Hills

Lois Baumann pumps up her students.
Photo by Spooner Baumann.

Vacant lots and boarded-up buildings have come to represent loss and despair in the town of Maywood, but the vacant lot owned by Stairway of the Stars is a symbol of hope for residents to rebuild their community.

“We actually anchor the business in north Maywood. But there are no businesses; we would like to see ourselves actually anchor businesses. This really paints a sad picture but we’ve always hoped to be part of a great change, when Maywood’s able to build this community back up—we’ll still be the anchor,” said Stairway founder and owner Lois Baumann.

Even though this dance studio burned beyond use on March 12, 2010, Stairway continues to grow to the point where it may exceed the capacity of First Congregational Church, its temporary location down the street.

Both the need and want to rebuild is palpable, yet there are multiple obstacles, including the economy, that stand in the way.

Baumann, 64, was born and raised in Maywood, opening Stairway in 1979 with her husband, Ernie, and 140 students. The dance school has since served thousands of underprivileged children in Maywood and surrounding communities.

As demand for dance classes and tumbling classes taught by Ernie increased, the Baumann’s realized the need to expand. The couple bought a storefront just south of Stairway to provide more tumbling classes. By 1996, the expanding dance school had spread itself too thin, becoming a financial burden.

“We couldn’t go on,” Lois Baumann said.

Fortunately, the parents of Maywood were not ready to let their children’s dance studio go under.

“Parents got together and said, ‘Why don’t we form a non-profit and we can ask for help, we can present this to the community and we can possibly fundraise,’” Baumann explained.

With the money raised, the Baumanns could buy an old bank building to establish Maywood Fine Arts (MFA), a non-profit organization which provides tumbling, singing, drama, music and karate lessons at affordable prices. These classes are $60 for seven weeks and there is a price cap of $225 for families with several children in multiple classes.

Students could now not only take dance lessons from Stairway but branch out to a number of fine and performing arts through MFA.

“To me there’s such a need in communities. I think every child should have the opportunity to dance and sing and tumble. It’s hard to say ‘no’ in communities like ours, so  much is not available,” Baumann said.

While rebuilding their dance studio will be necessary to accommodate an increase in the number of classes, economic problems are proving to be burdensome. The price to demolish the building alone was $150,000, with an end price to rebuild at $3 million. Even still, there was a plan to start a capital campaign to raise funds.

However, this plan was derailed when a large donor planning to give as much as half of the funding needed withdrew from the project. Katherine Bus, who is in charge of the capital campaign planning, blames the economy for this move.

“[Donors are] getting more grant requests, so that pushes our priority down. So things like that effect us as well—cuts to other nonprofits affect us as well because they’re not getting government money so there’s more competition for grants,” Bus said.

Because of this setback, Bus says the organization is at least a year from starting the “quiet phase” of a capital campaign, which essentially consists of securing enough funding, let alone the “public phase” to complete the capital campaign.

Board members are looking for other solutions, such as buying an existing building to renovate, or downsizing from a projected three-story model to a two-story building.

Nonetheless, neither of these options are what they want.

“Our original vision was to build our own multipurpose building for the studio, a recital space [for] music lessons. So this just isn’t what he hoped for,” Bus explained.

Ballet class in the old Stairway of the Stars studio.
Photo by Spooner Baumann.

The demand for fine arts organizations like Stairway and MFA is evident through its enrollment. Last year, 453 families with more than 700 children were enrolled in classes.

Many parents whose children are enrolled attended Stairway or MFA themselves and are still involved today.

Taiyana Shurn, 27, who has been involved with Stairway since she was four years old, received an undergraduate degree from Columbia College in dance and choreography, and now teaches at Stairway.

“I think teaching and dance are my passions. Why would I do anything else? I wouldn’t want to go to someone else’s studio. I want to go where I’ve come from. They’ve given so much to me; it’s giving something back to them,” Shurn said.

Regardless of the end solution, Stairway and MFA’s perseverance through this difficult time provides reinforcement to the community of Maywood.

Baumann said, “I think the community feels the pulse of what goes on at 5th and Lake, and I think it’s really positive.”

This article originally ran in the Spring 2011 edition of “Mosaic Magazine,” a Loyola University Chicago student publication.