Blue Gargoyle, a nonprofit literacy and tutoring program that served many South Side residents and hired U of C student volunteers, closed last week after 40 years of service.
Founded as a coffee house in 1968 by U of C Divinity School students, the program expanded to offer counseling, tutoring, GED prep, and child care to about 1,000 families. Staff say they are working to relocate the displaced students to similar programs.
Betsy Rubin, who worked for Blue Gargoyle until 2001, called the closing “a devastating loss to a lot of people and the community.”
Rubin, who is now at Literary Works, described the programs as “essential” for a wide range of South Side citizens. She said the clients ranged from small children to adults 75 and older, who “had a second life of the mind” thanks to Blue Gargoyle.
Alison Toback-Hofeld, who served as assistant director of Blue Gargoyle’s family learning program, said the transition has been rocky and that some of the staff has not been paid since March.
“We’ve never worked there for the money,” she said, “but even though we still have to feed our kids, there’s been staff at the offices every day since the layoffs—just trying to make sure their students get into another program.”
Toback-Hofeld explained that many of Blue Gargoyle’s clients rely on public aid, which requires them to be enrolled in classes like Blue Gargoyle’s or face losing their benefits. “It’s very dangerous for them. They could be sanctioned and lose their aid, lose their housing,” she said. “We have teen mothers with young children.”
She said that comparable programs are hard to find on the South Side, especially on such short notice. “Most are far away, and they don’t offer free child care during schooling like we did,” Toback-Hofeld said.
“Blue Gargoyle was unique because it offered classes every day and one-on-one-tutoring,” Rubin said, explaining that even though other programs offer one-one-one programs, the repetition of classes every day is often helpful. “The staff was stellar. They’ve been heroes, working feverishly trying to transfer students to other programs even as their own lives are falling apart.”
She reflected on the “personal satisfaction” the program brought to both students and volunteers, both from the U of C and the surrounding neighborhoods.
“It was a real community, where people learned together and made better lives for themselves,” Rubin said.