Irene Madrak reflects on a lifetime of service as North Light Community Center’s executive director.
By Megan Douress
Photography by Susan Beard Design (susanbearddesign.com)
and North Light Community Center
In the 1960s, a young girl named Irene lived on Roxborough Avenue. Five days a week, she would walk down the hill to St. John’s where she attended school. While she was an A student inside the classroom, her actions outside the classroom weren’t so great.
“It was a close-knit neighborhood,” said Irene Madrak, Executive Director of North Light Community Center. “I couldn’t stand that when I was growing up! I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to move out of the neighborhood because I wasn’t the most well-behaved child. By the time I would get home, my parents would already be well aware of my actions.”
Irene never did leave Manayunk. Today, she is preparing for her departure from North Light Community Center after nearly 40 years with the organization – the last 35 serving as the executive director.
Early in elementary school, Irene’s father told her the world was only as fair as we make it, so she decided that she would work to make the world a fairer place. She later learned the term “social justice” — a concept of fair and the relations between individuals and society — and started to look for ways she could have some impact.
At the time, North Light Community Center – then known as North Light Boys Club – had been an essential part of the neighborhood for more than 30 years. The organization provides family services to local households from emergency assistance to career workshops and childcare, but that wasn’t the original mission of founder, Ann Wright.
Picture Manayunk in 1936 during The Great Depression. People who came here to work in the factories are losing their jobs, money is tight, and children are getting in trouble as a result of the chaos. Ann, a school principal at the time, was approached by the police captain about providing alternative activities for Manayunk youth who were getting into trouble with the law. The captain had the use of a vacant building donated, located at 4410 Main Street, which is now home to Taqueria Feliz.
With no source of income and no paid staff, North Light Boys Club was just a drop-in center to get kids off of the street. Only a year later, the club needed a bigger space. Ann and other representatives from North Light acquired the former Green Lane School at an auction. North Light has been located at 175 Green Lane ever since.
“Our old gym used to be three converted classrooms that had 14-foot ceilings,” Irene laughed. “Imagine playing basketball with 14-foot ceilings! You could always tell a kid from North Light because they always shot line drives with backspin. It was a rough and tumble kind of place.”
North Light continued to grow those first few years without a stable source of funding. By the 1940s, North Light formed its first board of directors, incorporated, and became a member of what is now known as United Way, which took care of the bulk of their funding for the next 60 years.
“Ann was on the board of directors and she would trip over the girls on the steps on her way into the board meeting,” Irene recalled of a story Ann told her. “The girls would say, ‘Why can’t we come in?’ It was brought up at the board meeting and they decided it needed to start serving girls as well. At the same time, the United States was at war. Men were overseas and women were joining the workforce, and in response, North Light began its family support services.”
From 1952 to 1984, North Light was under the direction of executive director, John Willard. John was active in the helping to start many of the other community organizations that are still around today – the Manayunk Neighborhood Council, Intercommunity Action, the Manayunk-Roxborough Art Center, and the New Manayunk Corporation, the forerunner of the Manayunk Development Corporation — to name a few.
“He really believed it’s not just about serving people, it’s about self-determination — having people realize their hopes and dreams and bringing them together to realize them,” Irene said of John.
In 1975, Irene was heading to Temple University to study recreational therapy. She always wanted to be a history teacher, but the teaching profession was flooded at the time. She worked through college as a cashier and took on an internship with The Schuylkill Center where she worked with the special education programs in the summers.
After three years at The Schuylkill Center, Irene started looking for a placement for her senior internship and decided she wanted to try a community setting. One of her colleagues from Temple University was a program director at North Light, and after interviewing, Irene worked 40 hours a week under John’s direction throughout her final semester of college.
“It was a much more informal place at the time,” Irene remembered. “Mr. Willard told me to get to know some of the kids’ names. I went down and the first kid who came in was about 10 years old, short hair, and freckles. I thought it was a boy – reeking of cigarettes. I said, ‘Hi, what’s your name?’ and she said, ‘Ian,’ which was not a very common name at the time in Manayunk. I said, ‘Oh hi, Ian,’ and she goes, ‘No, not Ian, stupid. My name is Ene. My real name is Helene but I hate it so don’t ever call me that.’”
“The kids were a bit tough…it was a much different neighborhood,” Irene continued. “We started playing chutes and ladders and about the third time I landed and had to put her down the chute, she flipped the board in my face and said, ‘I’m not playing this stupid (explicative) game anymore!’ I said to myself, ‘I could never work at this place.’”
She recently received a note from “Ene,” who now is a grandmother living in Virginia, stating that she didn’t think her life would have turned out the way it has if it wasn’t for Irene and thanking her for everything she has done for her.
From 1979-1984, Irene transitioned roles from intern to program assistant, and then to program director. During that time, one of her responsibilities was coaching the girls’ basketball team.
“They were my first experience with being able to mold someone, which is funny because that’s not what I came here to do,” Irene laughed. “I’m not trained as a social worker so they were my training.”
In addition to sports, she made it her goal to come up with other activities that were cultural and educational. Friday nights were typically the most risky nights for teenagers, so Irene began taking some of her team to a barn playhouse in the suburbs where her friend, Arte Verbrugghe, was involved in live theater. A few years later, Arte took a staff position at North Light and founded the North Light Players, a theatre program that put on 50 productions over 20 seasons.
“I couldn’t imagine this tough group of girls doing theater, but my basketball team were all nuns in ‘The Sound of Music,’” she laughed. “It was amazing! It was so funny to see them take that risk on stage. I really enjoyed seeing that transformation and they enjoyed learning other skills.”
When Irene was 24-years-old, she resigned from North Light…briefly. She had been offered a much less demanding and significantly higher paying position with the City of Philadelphia. While using up vacation time from North Light before starting her new position, John offered and she accepted the position of the assistant director to the executive director at North Light. Two years later, John announced his retirement.
“I knew it was coming, but I didn’t know when because he had been such a fixture here for 30 years. I began to wonder if I had made the best decision in returning to North Light.”
“One day he said to me, ‘A couple of people on the board think maybe you should apply for the director position,’” Irene continued. “I said, ‘I’m 26 years old. I do not want to take on this much responsibility at this point in my life.’ He said, ‘That’s OK, I told them a woman could never do this job anyway.’ He just baited me right into it – hook, line, and sinker.”
Irene has been directing North Light since 1984. A few years later, the name was officially changed to North Light Community Center to better represent the present-day variety of services.
Main Street Manayunk went through somewhat of a revitalization during Irene’s first decade of directing. Small businesses started to fill in what were once empty storefronts, however, there was a “clash of cultures,” as Irene put it, between the community who lived here and the community who came to shop and dine here.
“Some of the neighbors started to feel resentful,” Irene said. “The customer base that came in was a bit snobbish to the neighbors. Also, the new businesses would have signs up that said they were hiring, but then locals would come in to apply and the position would be filled.”
“I would go into some shops to see how things were going and they would tell me about the damage local kids had done,” she continued. “I’d say, ‘They’re curious. Ask them for their names next time.’ I thought that at least if we got their names and there was a problem, we could deal with it. We really just had to get them together.”
As a result, the Yunker/Yuppie Workshops were born. Irene and her coworker, Arte, set up a series of meetings with local teenagers, local business owners, a handful of police officers, and the Human Relations Commission.
“Everyone initially came without a label of who they were and we did fun activities together,” Irene said. “It was a little touchy-feely, but in the end, it was successful in breaking down some barriers. Everyone learned each other’s names and stories which helped lessen the ‘us against them’ dynamic.”
To keep in line with their mission, Irene implemented affordable licensed child care and expanded emergency services for the local community. North Light offers year-round child care, but the summers on Green Lane are especially kid-filled with their Day Camp program. Families are able to pay for camp through a sliding scale so no one is turned away for inability to pay. Weekly themes during the 2019 camp season included “Pack Your Passport,” “Culinary,” and “Talent Show.”
“As the neighborhood demographics change, North Light remains committed to serving everyone in the community because we really feel like it’s not really good to segregate people socioeconomically,” Irene explained.
In addition, North Light partners with a number of local grocery stores and Philabundance to execute their Community Food Cupboard program to support insecure households throughout the year. The organization also offers assistance in paying utility bills through their Community Utility and Fuel Fund along with Holiday Assistance through programs like Manayunk Meals and More, where North Light partners with the Manayunk Development Corporation and Journey’s Way to deliver hot meals to those in need.
By the 1990’s, United Way had changed the way they funded organizations and North Light lost its main funding base. North Light’s leadership recognized the trend and began to look for alternative funding sources to sustain their work in the community. Irene looked for support from the new and improved business district.
“Barbara and Rick Carocci, who were partners with Bob Swarbrick in owning businesses on lower Main Street, were movers and shakers in this neighborhood,” she said. “They hosted a reception for some of the local business owners where we had some of the people who North Light served speak about how North Light had impacted their lives. That was the first time that we started to get donations from the businesses on Main Street.”
This community effort was dubbed the Bootstraps Campaign. With the money that was raised, she was able to hire a development staff member one day a week to implement the vision from the strategic plan for North Light. Bootstraps Campaign 2 came at a later time where those original donors were asked to reach out to their circles and share North Light’s message.
“We were trying to increase our visibility and tell our story to a new constituency that didn’t know us very well, if at all – not who we serve but who can support us,” she said.
“That was quite a time of growth in the 2000s,” she continued. “There still isn’t a funding model for sustaining North Light. We’re still very fragile. I’m very proud that we got over that hump and that we are open and continue to provide relevant services to the community. However, part of the reason I’m retiring is because although I’ve helped to get North Light over this major hump, I feel that North Light needs someone else to take it from here.”
When reflecting on the changes she made in her 40 years at North Light, she remembered something Ann Wright said to her when she met her in the 90s – something that still remains true today.
“She said, ‘We really never planned on North Light being a permanent thing. It just took a life of its own,”’ Irene said. “I think that really does characterize the way it’s moved forward. It’s always evolving to remain relevant, which is why it’s still here today.”
Irene refused to take all of the credit, though. She’s had some pretty amazing board and staff members as well as volunteers throughout her career at North Light, which she said has been her favorite part of working here for all these years.
“What I value most about this job is that I’ve had the privilege of meeting the most amazing folks that I may never have crossed paths with otherwise — both people we serve and those who make those services possible by their generosity with their time and resources,” she said. “I get to hear people’s stories and they have really had an impact on my life. I have never stop being surprised by people’s generosity.”
She recalled another saying from someone she looked up to in the organization, John Willard.
“He used to say, ‘This place is like a granola bar – fruits, nuts, and flakes. But you put them all together and they taste good and they’re even good for you,’” Irene remembered. “His statement might sound flippant but his meaning was that North Light values diversity and is accepting of all as individuals. His approach with people really resonated with me.”
As Irene prepares to retire at the end of 2019, she looks forward to spending more time at her summer home in Point Pleasant, PA where she’s always enjoyed kayaking. She’ll also take more time to see her children and other family members who live across the country. And when she’s not doing those things, Irene is considering being the daytime bartender at Winnie’s Manayunk.
“Winnie probably figures I’ll bring in all the retirees in. We’ll see!” Irene joked.
While North Light searches for their new leader, Irene plans to help with the transition but to step back completely for a year or two while the dust settles. She remains confident that the organization will continue to evolve in order to stay relevant for the community that relies on them every day.
“If the culture continues here, it’ll always be on the cutting edge, socially,” she said. “I think it will always be responsive to the most vulnerable populations.”
Irene couldn’t have supported the community for most of her life without the support of her staff, the community, and most importantly, her family. She’s even thinking of getting her husband, Paul, a brass plaque for all he’s sacrificed throughout her career.
“Make sure this gets in there: without my husband’s support I never would’ve been able to do this job!” she laughed.
“I’ve always felt North Light is a safe place to come,” she continued. “It’s a place that has some assurance around it – responsiveness. I’ve always been proud that we’ve been here for people in some of their worst times.”
“It’s been a trip and it went by like that!” she said while enthusiastically snapping her fingers.