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Borrow a Page From the Philanthropic Bears

By Mark Brown, Sun-Times Columnist
Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, January 21, 2002

For all you Bears fans who were pacing yourselves, figuring to squeeze at least one more week of excitement out of this season, I may have just the ticket for your unexpended goodwill and enthusiasm.

Meet Zak Mucha, author of The Beggars' Shore, a novel set in Uptown about runaways and street thieves.

Mucha's book wasn't a best seller, but it's one more book than I've written, so I'm impressed.

Mucha also happens to be the grandson of Rudy Mucha, who played guard and linebacker on the 1946 Bears team that won the NFL championship behind Sid Luckman.

The younger Mucha's tenuous connection to the Bears has practically nothing to do with the story I want to tell you today, but if you're patient, I'll try to tie it all together anyway.

Just remember. It's a matter of karma.

Until recently, Mucha worked at the Columbus-Maryville Children's Reception Center, 810 W. Montrose, an emergency shelter for abused and neglected kids from throughout the Chicago area.

Now, he's writing while working part time for a moving company. That's the way serious writers do it when they're getting started.

Even though he doesn't work at the shelter anymore, Mucha is still involved in a worthwhile effort to improve the lives of the kids there, and he's looking for help.

Some of the kids at Columbus-Maryville are waiting to be placed in foster homes or residential programs. Others are awaiting court dates. Some are waiting to be returned to their families.

The shelter has capacity for 130 children, and it's usually full. The kids can range in age from newborns to age 20.

Almost all of them are wards of the state. Privacy considerations prevent me from telling this story through them.

The facility is part of Maryville Academy, the highly respected Des Plaines-based group directed by the Rev. John Smythe, an archdiocesan priest whose good works have made him one of Chicago's legends.

Columbus-Maryville has a "no refusal'' policy: If any child needs its help, the shelter will provide it.

Because of the turnover as children are placed elsewhere, the shelter sees as many as 2,000 kids in a year.

The idea is to move them quickly into a more permanent situation, but some difficult-to-place kids will stay there as long as nine months.

As you can imagine, most of these kids have led difficult lives and have the problems to show for it.

"Some of these guys have been in institutions since they were little babies,'' Mucha said.

In addition to giving them a safe place to live, the shelter provides the kids with many support services, such as anger management. It also operates its own school for residents for whom it is impractical to transport to their regular schools.

One of the problems is keeping them interested in their classes. Many are more concerned with learning to be players on the street than with getting a formal education. That's not a problem that's unique to the shelter, but it certainly shapes some of its challenges.

"When they don't have a stable home, staying in school is such a secondary thing,'' Mucha said.

I'm sure you would agree that one of the keys to a good education is reading at home.

Mucha thought so, too, which is why he was stunned to discover what passed for a library at Columbus-Maryville.

"There was like one shelf of books with one or two Mark Twains, a Judy Blume, a Solzhenitsyn and a dictionary that began with the letter 'N','' Mucha said.

With help from case manager Megan McCarthy and support from shelter program director Tim Keane, Mucha began a book drive, looking for donations of children's books.

As you might suspect, this is where you could help.

Mucha is seeking any reading material that might get a kid to open a book: the Goosebumps series, Star Trek, comic books—you name it.

"Harry Potter would be great,'' he said. (Based on what sells in my house, I might also suggest A Series of Unfortunate Events and Captain Underpants books.)

Mucha has scheduled a reading of Chicago authors at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Gallery Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph. Admission is a book that can be donated to the shelter. I'd recommend you bring several.

I'm not big on book readings, limiting mine to bedtime with the kids. But if you're of a like mind, don't worry. You could drop off the books without sitting through the readings.

Or if you can't make it at all, the shelter would be happy to accept your book donations any time at its 810 W. Montrose location.

Here's where I tie this magically back into the Bears.

You may remember a karaoke party at which many Bears players performed in early September, just after the season-opening loss to Baltimore. It was a fund-raiser for the Illinois Literacy Foundation, a program that promotes reading.

The karaoke attracted a lot of television coverage and gave us our first chance to start bonding with this year's Bears team. The Bears started winning immediately afterward.

You might call it coincidence. I'd say it was good karma.

So what better way for fans to start building up some good karma for next year's team than to assist the grandson of a Bears champion in his effort to help kids read, continuing what the players started in September?

It works for me.

Donations can be sent to:

Columbus-Maryville Children's Reception Center
c/o Megan McCarthy
810 W. Montrose Avenue
Chicago, IL 60613-1409


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