Ellen Stirling, 73-year-old CEO and owner of The Lake Forest Shop, a local fashion institution in the Chicago area that celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, has always planned to use her many perks to uplift her beloved city. from Chicago.

His first major foray into philanthropy and improving the lives of Chicagoans began in 1972 after graduating from Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. with a BA in Art History. A friend suggested she work with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (now the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab) and its legendary founder, Henry Betts, MD, a pioneer in the field of rehabilitation medicine and a passionate ally and advocate for Americans with disabilities. she agreed would be a good use of her time and influence.

The daughter of a prominent power couple, Stirling had grown up on the wealth of old money in a long line of noted philanthropists who championed various local causes related to improving children’s lives, providing accessibility to higher education and funding many non-profit organizations in the neighborhood. dates back to the end of the 19th century. Helping to advance the greater good, especially in his hometown, was the longstanding philosophy and expectation of his ancestors. Working with the institute was aligned with Stirling’s values, and “it turned out to be one of the most incredible experiences of my life,” she told Oprah Daily.

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Betts wanted to organize a conference focused on people with disabilities, including wheelchair accessibility (or lack thereof), and he asked Stirling to chair. “I didn’t know what I was getting into,” she says, but thanks to the assembly of key stakeholders (wheelchair users, activists, lawyers, medical professionals) who shared their personal stories, struggles and their research on the subject, Stirling became keenly aware of the gross injustices that wheelchair users face on a daily basis due to insensitive engineering designs that fail to take their needs into account. At the time, subway stations did not have elevators to help wheelchair users get to their destination; buses had no lifts and passed people in wheelchairs waiting at stops; the sidewalks had no ramps, nor did the buildings. “Think about being in a wheelchair and not being able to cross the street because of the sidewalk,” she says.

Ellen Stirling

Ellen Stirling (right) celebrating the takeover of her family’s shop in 1986.

Courtesy of Ellen Stirling

To ensure the conference would be wheelchair accessible – and to emphasize the urgency of the task at hand – Betts and Stirling invited then-Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley into the restroom to men of the place where the conversation would take place. “‘We’re going to show you exactly what needs to happen here,'” Stirling recalled, as she and Betts demonstrated with a tape measure the width of a wheelchair and the space needed to maneuver it. “After we did that, I said to the mayor, ‘Don’t you think that’s a very good reason to make these changes to these bathrooms so that we can have the conference here and we can attract a large audience?’ And he said, ‘Yes’.

This building, then called American Furniture Mart, was renovated, redesigned and renamed 680 Lake Shore Drive, but it is the first building in Chicago to offer wheelchair accessible bathrooms, and it retains its wheelchair accessible ramp. origin in the building. “I always go back and walk up that ramp every time I’m on it,” she says.

Access Chicago, a nonprofit founded by Betts, Stirling and architect and accessibility advocate Jack Catlin – Sterling describes Catlin as “the dynamic leader” – was born out of this conference in 1972, 50 years ago this year – and 18 years before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life, a landmark law that ensures people with disabilities enjoy the same opportunities as everyone else the world. “It absolutely made me much more sensitive to the world, and especially people with disabilities. Pioneers like Dr. Betts, Access Chicago, and countless determined accessibility advocates are true heroes who have helped make Chicago the one of the most accessible cities in the country,” she says.

the lake forest shop

The facade of the century-old The Lake Forest Shop.

Courtesy of Ellen Stirling

From this seminal experience, Stirling turned his attention to the arts and literacy by helping to establish the Art Institute of Chicago’s Auxiliary Council in 1973, which now has about 60 members and has been called “the Charitable Council the oldest and most recognized of its kind in the nation. It helps facilitate museum education, lecture series, outreach programs and exhibitions. “Each year we would buy a piece or two from a local artist and donate it to the museum’s collection and sponsor local artists. It was really amazing,” she recalls.

Stirling’s philanthropy grew over the years. With a business acumen developed over three decades, Stirling identified the need for a bank in Lake Forest and decided with a group of friends to open one in 1991. Today, the Lake Forest Bank & Trust is part of the Wintrust Financial family of banks. , which includes more than 170 locations in Chicago and southern Wisconsin, 5,000 employees and $50 billion in assets, enabling it to provide a steady stream of funds to local charities and nonprofits, including the Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital and Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. “Thanks to the bank, we were able to give back to the community,” she says. Again this year, Lake Forest Bank & Trust donated $1 million to Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital, which opened a new state-of-the-art building in Lake Forest in 2018.

Her desire to help her fellow Chicagoans begins even closer to home, however, right inside The Lake Forest Shop, the 100-year-old legacy shop she saved from bankruptcy in 1986 thanks to decisions sensible business. In October, the shop hosts a month-long charity campaign called Shop Your Cause that funds local nonprofits that champion education, health care, community centers, and sustainability efforts. In 2021 alone, the store funded the Boys & Girls Club of Lake County, Elawa Farm Foundation, Gorton Community Center, Citadel Theatre, Lake Forest Open Lands, Mothers Trust Foundation and Stirling Hall, the arts and activities center of the town of Lake Forest. . “These wonderful, artistic nonprofits have truly become the soul of our city, so we’re telling our local communities, ‘Hey, you gotta support them.'”

“It’s part of me to try to make the world a better place,” she says.

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