Freezin’ for a reason: Special Olympics’ Polar Plunge celebrates 20 years

by Doug Rapp

They’re freezin’ for a reason.

The 20th annual Chicago Polar Plunge to benefit Special Olympics Chicago is scheduled for Sunday, March 1, 2020, at North Avenue Beach. “Plungers” collect donations and pledge to jump into the icy waters of Lake Michigan.

“People are excited we’ve been doing this event this long,” said Heather Kundert, executive director of Special Olympics Chicago.

Kundert said they’re expecting 4,000 plungers, a combination of nearly 300 teams and individuals. Their goal, she said, is to raise $2,020,000 for the year 2020, all of which benefits the Chicago Special Olympics organization.

For the 20th anniversary, Kundert said they’re recognizing people who’ve participated since the beginning. Long-standing team Kidd Krue has raised over $42,000 and is the top non-corporate team. Some of the polar plunge founders attending this year include Gerry Henaghan, Pam Munizzi, Ernest Alvarado, Richard McAvoy and Michael Brady.

Kundert said they also want to recognize some other participating agencies, such as Envision and Misericordia, that support people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. 

“We’re excited to partner with some of our sister agencies in a different way this year,” she said.

New this year, Kundert said, will be an “Olympic village,” where sponsors and partner agencies will have different fun activities to encourage people to learn about other agencies helping out people with disabilities.

Kundert also praised the park district and the dive team on hand during the plunge. 

“We’re really proud that the city has really embraced this,” she said. “We wouldn’t be able to do a lot of what we do at the scale we do it without the park district’s help and their partnerships.”

John Fahey, of Team Dan Fahey is plunging for the fourth time this year. His brother Daniel is a Special Olympics athlete, he said, who plays basketball and baseball among other sports at Mt. Greenwood Park. John Fahey said his team raised $38,000 last year but this year they’re hoping to raise $40,000.

“We know it’s a good cause…we wanted to give back a little,” Fahey said.

Fahey recalled how last year was exceptionally cold and ice had to be cleared to make way for the plungers, but it’s an experience he still enjoys.

“It’s pretty awesome,” he said of running into the chilly lake. “It’s exhilarating, you get a pretty big rush. The adrenaline’s pumping. You’re yelling and screaming out there with a bunch of your friends.”

Kundert said many of the participants like Fahey have a personal connection to the Special Olympics but many plungers just want to help out. 

“Really they’re just all trying to get behind the city of Chicago and what we’re doing and what we do for these individuals,” Kundert said. “They really believe in supporting individuals with intellectual disabilities.”
To register as a team or individual or to donate, visit https://sochicago.org/chicago-polar-plunge/.

The crust is crucial: l’Aventino brings next-generation Roman pizza to Streeterville

by Doug Rapp

When Adam Weisell would return to Rome after growing up there with his United Nations-employed parents,  he often heard about a new style of pizza. 

People would tell the budding chef about pinsa (pro- nounced “peen-sa”). 

“I’d go eat it and think, ‘This is delicious,’” Weisell said. He was used to the wide, thin-crust Roman pizzas but pinsa had a different crust—a crispy exterior with an airy texture, moist and fragrant inside.

Weisell loves pinsa so much that after nearly two decades cooking for others, including Mario Batali, he’s opened his own restaurant, L’Aventino Forno Romano, 355 E. Ohio St., featuring this “modern play on a very traditional Roman pizza.”

“Chicago is such a pizza town and yet there’s a style that’s vastly underrepresented here,” said Weisell, who has cooked in mostly Italian restaurants in New York City, San Francisco and Chicago, including Eataly.

“Pinsa hasn’t come across the U.S. in a big way and I’m hoping to be part of that,” Weisell added, noting that oval flatbread pizzas are popular throughout Italy and Europe. 

Open since late November, l’Aventino has three levels that seat 48, a full-service bar and patio that will open for warmer weather.

“It’s a little funky,” Weisell said. “It reminds me a lot of a Roman restaurant.”   

The menu features several pinsas, with a variety of top- pings and vegetarian-friendly options. Weisell said the crust  is made of soy, wheat and rice  ours and takes 48 hours to ferment, which increases its  flavor and digestibility.

“The reception has been overwhelmingly positive,” Weisell said. “Once people are in the door and eat it, I think most people are hooked.”

Weisell said l’Aventino, named after one of the seven hills ancient Rome was built on, has gotten a lot of foot traffic from people coming in out of curiosity.

“One of the appeals of the location is that people are going to be constantly walking by on their way to the (Northwestern Memorial) hospital or their way home from work,” he said.

Weisell said he’s pleased with how his  first restaurant is going.

“At the end of the day, this is dough with sauce and cheese on it, so it is not that different,” he said. “It’s just a slightly different style.”  

Local charities left short-handed after season of giving

by Jacqueline Covey

The Chicago Help Initiative gives free meals to guests who are in need. During the holidays, there is no shortage of volunteers, but post giving-season, this organization, like many non-profits in the area, becomes short-handed.

Executive Director of Chicago Help Initiative Doug Fraser sees an increase in volunteerism around Christmas each year, but he said that’s not when it’s needed. Between now and February, he’s calling on Christmas-time aides to  re-sign up with the organization. New volunteers are  always welcome, too. 

Every Wednesday, volunteers provide sit-down dinners to 130 guests and 70  take out meals as part of the Chicago Help Initiative free meals program. The idea is that providing a dignified experience fulfills a sense of place for participants. Before dinner, some guests take advantage of classes in  technology, creative writing and art facilitated by  Catholic Charities at their community center located at 721 N. LaSalle St.

“We are all a community, we all have each other,” said Sandra Dillion, a student in the knitting group. “We  share our ideas and our thoughts. If we get stuck, we are here to help each other out.”

The first dinner was in  2001 when Catholic Charities opened their space for  a weekly gathering with food donated from local restaurants. A speaker  mini-series was added,  then social and health services were brought in and  over the years relationships have been built between long time volunteers and guests.

“We have volunteers of all ages and backgrounds, some of whom have been  coming for years,” said Brigid Murphy of Catholic Charities. “There are lovely  relationships that have developed among volunteers  and supper guests.”

The organization has created a space built on  respect where social stigmas are broken down. For  a couple hours, guests can  enjoy the simple joy of having a warm meal in a warm  place with friends.

“What we’ve learned is  that if you treat a home- less person with respect…  we can get them off the  streets,” founder and president Jacqueline Hayes said.  “Efforts to help are good, but we fill them up with  such good feelings about themselves.”

As a Chicago real estate broker specializing in retail  leasing along the Magnificent Mile and Oak Street,  Hayes sought ways to  help the homeless population that congregated at  storefronts.

Now, 20 years after the  group began, the organization is still growing largely  as a result of a robust volunteer community.

For more information or to volunteer, contact the Chicago Help Initiative, 440 N Wells St., Suite 440, Chicago, (312) 448-0045  or visit chicagohelpinitiative.org  

‘Secret’ Ace to close: Gordon’s Ace family glue will continue to keep community strong

by Mat Cohen

It’s rare for a father-son duo to go to the local elementary school dressed as Santa and an elf to wish kids a merry Christmas. But for Jeremy Melnick and his dad, Les, it was to give back to the community they’ve been part of since 1950. Jeremy’s grandfather opened his first Gordon’s Ace Hardware store franchise on the corner of State  Street and Oak Street, neighboring Ogden Elementary School and expanded the number of their  stores over time to include a highly frequented but tucked away store at 680 N. Lakeshore Drive.

“It’s how I got started in the first place,” Jeremy Melnick said. “It was a daily, weekly conversation around the dinner table.”

 Melnick got his masters degree and left banking  21 years ago to partner with his dad in the family business. 

“In the back of my mind I think it was always  something I’d want to get into,” he said. “Twenty-one years later, here I am.”

Gordon’s Ace has eight locations, four scattered around downtown neighborhoods.

“We’ve been a part of it for so long,” Jeremy Melnick said. “There’s been an Ace store down here forever… you see generations of customers, which is always nice.”

 Gordon’s Ace didn’t always have the coverage  across the neighborhoods it has today.

“When we partnered with my dad we had a growth plan,” he said. “We opened our second store on Orleans in 2005. Eighteen months later we bought a four-store chain.

“We went from one to two, to six stores in a relatively short period of time from 2005 to 2007.”

The location in Streeterville, 680 N. Lake Shore Drive, has been nicknamed “the secret Ace” by its customers because there’s minimal signage.

The location, which has been in the neighbor- hood for 30 years, and owned by the Gordon’s for  seven, is closing the end of December.

 Store manager Bob Willis says he’s come to know many people throughout his 10 years as manager.

“They’re all sad to see us leaving,” he said. “It’s been the best part to help people and get to know people around the building and in the neighborhood.”

Despite being in the city, Gordon’s Ace stores create a local community, stocking such items as local barbecue sauce or humidity tools to suit high rises downtown.

The company gives back to the community everyday. Last year it raised $100,000 for Lurie Children’s Hospital.

They won’t rush into finding another Streeterville location, but with the right place and timing,  they hope to be back in the neighborhood soon.  

Streeterville Walks welcomes newcomers to the area

by Stephanie Racine

Streeterville Walks, a social walking program of Streeterville Neighborhood Advocates, has been around for nearly six years. 

Craig Kaiser, who organizes the walks, started the program as a neighborhood watch endeavor. But he noticed people who came on watch were much more interested in the social aspect, so the walk evolved.

The walk was then focused on hidden gems including public art, architecture, and businesses. Now, Streeterville Walks adds a different angle: welcoming newcomers to the neighborhood.

“We will introduce new people to the highlights of living [in Streeterville], including the usual history, art and architecture but also pointing out the great amenities like groceries, coffee shops, child care, pet care, parks etc.,” Kaiser said.

The first of these neighborhood welcome walks took place on Saturday, Oct. 5 at 10 a.m. The group met at the plaza next to the new Apple Store, on Michigan Avenue, just north of the river. Kaiser figured the recognizable location, plus the surrounding architecture, was a good place to start for newcomers.

New residents come to Streeterville frequently. With schools and hospitals in the area, including Northwestern Law and Northwestern Hospital, there’s a preponderance of newcomers every year. According to Kaiser, more than thirty thousand people live in Streeterville, along with ten thousand dogs.  

On the first walk, Kaiser took note of classic Streeterville lore, mentioning the story of its founder—George Wellington “Cap” Streeter. He also pointed out definitive restaurants in Streeterville, such as Robert’s Pizzeria, Yolk, and Lizzie McNeil’s. He spouted little-known architectural factoids, including the ordinance that Tribune Tower will always have an uninterrupted view of the lake.  

Christian and Janet Silge moved to Streeterville from Lake Forest about six months ago. “We were looking for a way to get to know the neighborhood a bit better,” said Christian Silge. They happened upon the Streeterville Walk on the neighborhood app NextDoor and have been happy with the experience.

“We love the fact that each walk has a different focus and we are always excited to learn some new tidbit of information or some historical significance of a street, building, park, monument, mural, or other artwork” said Silge.

The couple is happy to be more educated about the community and look forward to future walks. “Who knows, maybe we will lead some future walks ourselves,” said Silge.

Kaiser is hoping to partner with real estate agents in the area who sell or rent to newcomers, so they will have an opportunity to go on a walk and learn about the neighborhood, while also meeting their neighbors.

For more information about the Streeterville Walks program, email SNA60611@gmail.com, or join their official Streeterville Neighborhood Advocates Facebook group.

Local doctor finds freedom, uses real medical innovation to kill in fiction novel

By Mat Cohen

In the last scene of the 1977 film “Annie Hall,” Woody Allen jokes most people can’t break from a rut if they need the means it’s providing.

Dr. Michael Young, a Streeterville resident, had a private urology practice from 1991 to 2017 and is thankful he wasn’t dependent on a proverbial chicken providing him eggs. This led Young to break free of the medical industry and write his two books, The Illness of Medicine and Consequence of Murder.

“If you are stuck, but you don’t have any options and you need the eggs, you’re still stuck,” Young said. “I had an opportunity to say goodbye—I financially was secure and was able to cut that chain. I have other interests, other abilities and the means to pursue them.

“So I took advantage of that.”

Young’s other interests include medical innovation, underwater photography, teaching, riding his bike along Lake Michigan and writing. At the peak of his game, as the head of two departments and with a private practice, Young stepped away for those interests.

“I just got fatigued with where medicine was going,” he said. “It’s not that I don’t enjoy it, I just don’t enjoy the environment in which we have to practice.”

Currently, he is the director of the division of innovation in the Department of Urology at the University of Illinois Chicago and has been on radio shows discussing the state of the medical industry.

His first book, Illness of Medicine, published February 2018, recounts his 33 years of experience in the medical field.

“I wanted patients to understand what physicians are going through and I wanted physicians to understand what patients are going through,” he said. “I wanted both to see the other side of the table.”

Consequence of Murder, a fictional story published in June, uses a HydroGel to kill evil. The gel, which Young developed in real life for about a year, changes its state based on temperature. Its original purpose was to hold kidney stones still for doctors to break them down easier. But when the Office of Technology Management found other work in that area, the HydroGel was used to fictitiously take away lives instead.

“I’ve done all this work and now I can’t do anything with it,” he said. “What do you do when you get upset? Well you say, ‘I’m going to kill somebody,’ figuratively. So I decided I was going to use this stuff to kill somebody. It was my venting.

“So, that’s the process of murder. It’s a little warped, I know, but this is how I think.”

Christian Luciano, Ph.D., is a colleague of Young’s at UIC was impressed Young was able to turn the book into a mystery.

“It’s amazing how this involved a mystery novel,” he said. “It’s an extraordinary complex thing and he makes it understandable. The perfect balance between facts and details, but while still keeping the essence of what it is.”

Young said fictional writing is more challenging than nonfiction. He is currently writing his third book with many of the same characters overlapping from his second. 
For more information, visit https://michaeljyoungmd.com/.

Streeterville author tells history through the cemetery

By Jesse Wright, staff writer

Streeterville photographer and author Larry Broutman knows a little about cemeteries.

His newest book about the city’s cemeteries, “Chicago Eternal,” in April was awarded a silver award in the regional book category by the Independent Book Publisher’s Association. 

For Broutman, cemeteries aren’t maudlin but rather are instructive.

“The history of Chicago can be quite well told by walking through the cemeteries and looking at Chicagoans who have passed away,” he said.

His previous book, “Chicago Monumental,” focuses on the city’s monuments. After that book was published, Broutman said he began thinking that many monuments are in cemeteries. So, he went searching.  

“Some of the monuments were done by world famous sculptors,” he said. “I had been in a couple of cemeteries when I realized, ‘Wow there are some pretty incredible stories there.’”

So, he began to tell those stories.

His research took him to more than 30 cemeteries across Cook County and when he wrapped up, he had 300 stories.

“It’s a hefty book and a time consuming one, but I am retired,” he said.

Before going into a cemetery, Broutman checks with the keeper.

“I always was careful about the respectful aspect of it and first I consulted the cemetery staff and told them what I was doing, and I asked them if photography was OK,” he said.

Broutman said nearly every cemetery was fine with the project as he took photos of grave markers, monuments, tombs and war memorials.

Streeterville residents might recognize Broutman’s work from the walls of the Lurie Children’s Hospital. Broutman said he’s been a photographer for years and has travelled through Africa taking nature photos.

Several years ago, the Lurie Hospital asked him to take photos of Chicago scenes, so he mixed them together with his African photos. The result included  a tiger lying in the flowers along Michigan Avenue and he replaced the horses on a horse drawn carriage with zebras.

The project also sparked another interest, photographing the city.

“Once I did that I couldn’t stop,” he said. “I spent another year taking Chicago scenes all over the city.”

Then he moved on to the grave yard.

“Chicago Eternal” is available at Amazon.com.

Hotel plan for 227 Walton meets local resistance

(Published Aug. 31, 2019)

By Jesse Wright

Would-be developers of a condo at 227 E. Walton got an earful from angry neighbors at a community meeting in August.

The property is a historically significant 13-story, 25-unit condominium and developers with BRAD Management would like to turn it into an extended-stay corporate suite.

The Streeterville Organization of Active Residents organized the meeting and Alderman Brian Hopkins attended. He said he wanted to hear community feedback from the proposal. The development first came to light in June at a SOAR land use meeting, and since the plan was floated, residents have opposed the possibility of turning a condo into a hotel. Hopkins acknowledged the unpopular proposal early in the evening.

“We’re starting the discussions to see if there’s anything that can be done to make this more palpable to the community,” Hopkins said at the top of the meeting.

Harry Weese designed the building 63 years ago and the city deemed the property a landmark in 2012. Because of that status, the developers cannot alter the outside significantly, and two spokespeople assured the community that wouldn’t happen—but that assurance didn’t go far.

Community members said they were concerned introducing a hotel—even an extended stay hotel—would invite strangers and trouble into the neighborhood.

“We moved in here because it’s a neighborhood and because it has a neighborhood feel,” a man said. “I would hate to think that because it’s a neighborhood building, we can’t live in the neighborhood and can’t have the environment we enjoy. We don’t want to have transients coming in all day long and all week long.”

Michael Monu, one of the spokespeople on behalf of the developers, tried to assure the community the hotel would not attract rowdy crowds. He said the hotel would not allow overnight stays and would average stays of four-to-five nights at least. He added that the lobby would have cameras and noise meters and that individual units would have decibel meters and marijuana and cigarette meters. Finally, he said, guests would be screened through a background check.

Still, residents said a hotel would drive down property values and one woman said she was afraid the development would “ruin this neighborhood.”

However, Graham Grady, a lawyer for the development team, said the building has limited potential as a residence.

“There’s not a great market demand for large, two-bedroom units,” Grady said. “If you lower the rent too much it’s not going to operate in the black for too long.”

By the end of the discussion, few—if any—residents seemed convinced and Hopkins said he, too, would wait and see whether or not the developers would agree to address community concerns before he would sign off on the project.

“They have to convince me as well as everyone else in this room,” he said.

Hopkins did point out that the city could include deed restrictions on the property that would limit not only how the current owners developed the project but how the property could be forever used in the future—meaning even if the property is re-zoned, it would still be held to certain restrictions in line with community support.

The next step in the process will be in mid-September, when the developers are scheduled to file a zoning map amendment application, though city council action on the project is still months away and tentatively scheduled for some time in December. In the meantime, Hopkins’ office is seeking community input, and residents can weight through his website, www.aldermanhopkins.com.

Get to know a CEO: Joanne Smith, CEO of Shirley Ryan AbilityLab

(Published Aug. 31, 2019)

By Jesse Wright

Q: To start with, could you tell me a little bit about your background? I know you went to undergrad in Michigan; did you grow up there? When did medicine begin to interest you and at what point did you decide to focus on rehabilitation? I noticed by the time you did your residency, you were already practicing in the field of rehabilitation, and I’m curious what professional challenges appealed to you in the field.

A: Yes, I grew up in Michigan and went to undergrad and medical school there. My sister was a nurse, and I considered that path, but ultimately decided to become a doctor. Nursing is highly structured, and I needed to interact with patients in a way that was less process-based and more discovery-based. So I went to med school. I’ll never forget assisting an orthopedic surgeon on a visit to a free clinic during my elective rotation in physical medicine and rehabilitation (PMR). Patients there gifted me with insight — I realized they didn’t want conformist solutions, they wanted better outcomes. They want to live their best, happiest and most independent lives. This insight would drive my calling and my career.

Q: Did you immediately notice the problems with rehabilitation medicine—the ones you would later come to address through Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, or did your opinions and views change over time?

As someone with a scientist’s drive for solving problems, early on I saw a lack of research advancing this field. However, now we are living in a time of momentous, rapid convergence of the sciences, technology, biologics and engineering. As leaders, it is incumbent upon us at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab to harness this synergy. Thus, my vision was born to structurally and philosophically compel collaboration between medicine and science. Our success, which is already apparent in helping patients achieve better outcomes, is not only raising the bar for our field, but also for the practice of medicine.

Q: What inspired you to get an MBA? Being a physician is notoriously time consuming and stressful and it’s a passion for most doctors. Why get into the business side of things? More specifically, what interested you in being a CEO?

A: I didn’t plan to earn my MBA, but when I was a young physician at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC), my mentor asked me to serve as a medical consultant for the University of Chicago Hospitals. There, I got a bird’s-eye view of the business and operations side of medicine. I observed that leading physicians in acute “cure-based” medicine did not always understand the rehabilitation work of the post-acute sector. This experience led me to the MBA program at University of Chicago Booth School of Business. As a physician, I loved treating my patients, but as CEO of Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, I know that I can have a much greater impact, not only for our patients, but also for the people who need us all over the world.

Q: In addition to being a CEO, I understand you’re still on the medical faculty at Northwestern’s school of medicine. Where do you find the time to do all of this? What keeps you in academia? I would assume there’s more than enough to fill the days as CEO of the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab?

A: We are doing what no one else is doing, and thus have a responsibility to be a resource to the world. It’s a privilege to share our ever-growing expertise and discovery, and that’s why I speak frequently nationally and internationally before thought leaders in healthcare and beyond.  

Q: The Shirley Ryan AbilityLab has long been noted as one of the world’s leading providers of rehabilitation services due, in no small part, to your view that medical providers should dismiss the prefix dis- in disability and focus instead on helping the patient function in a way that makes sense to them as opposed to forcing patients to conform to expectations/social preferences of those around them. This seems nothing short of a radical idea, considering until very recently, people with severe disabilities were literally hidden away from public view in various way, though often with the best of intentions. Is this indeed as radical as it seems?

A: Yes, it’s a radical idea. Even more radical is our model that integrates doctors and therapists together with researchers in the same space so that “cross-pollination” can lead to greater innovation. Shirley Ryan AbilityLab is the first-ever translational research hospital in which clinicians and scientists collaborate side by side with patients 24/7. In our revolutionary model, we have shifted the focus from the process of rehabilitation to the outcome — ability. The result? Better, faster recoveries for the patients we serve.

Q: Of course, this was the topic of your Aspen Ideas Festival essay and you mentioned changing the vernacular in medicine and in treatment settings (and I understand that’s why the lab was renamed the AbilityLab, as opposed to the former Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago) but this issue seems bigger than a CEO or a physician or even a research hospital. It seems like you’re trying to change public opinion, or the opinion of everyone who isn’t or has never been through rehabilitation. Is this indeed the goal?

A: Our biggest goal is advancing human ability. Ability is function. That’s why we’ve invested so significantly in speeding discovery and innovation — all focused solely on helping patients achieve better outcomes, faster. The world is watching and taking note.

Q: If so, that seems perhaps a bit Sisyphean and maybe even more ambitious than leading one of the world’s best research hospitals, though I’m guessing you wouldn’t agree with that?

A: Patients and families don’t come to us for the status quo. They expect more from us, and everyone here — from clinicians, scientists and staff to executives — is passionate about helping others by solving big problems. I’ve never shied away from a challenge, and that attitude is part of our culture. It’s no accident that we invented the world’s first thought-controlled bionic arm, among many other advancements and innovations. Every one of our scientists works on projects that will directly benefit one (or more) of our patient populations.

Q: I ask because from an outside perspective it seems like public option of people with disabilities seems almost regressive at time. Last year the House passed the ADA Education and Reform Act, which would have significantly weakened the ADA and made it harder for people with disabilities to get access to public facilities and to sue violators. What did that mean for you? What does that say about public opinion of people with disabilities?

A: I keep a quote by Goethe close at hand: “The way you see people is the way you treat them, and the way you treat them is what they become.” We need a new vernacular. Our language evolves as our society grows more informed, compassionate and inclusive. We are not waiting for that change to happen, we are driving it. Actually, our patients are driving it.

Q: How would you suggest doctors and other advocates change public perception and public opinion?

A: Focus on what people can do, not what they can’t. At Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, we’re harnessing the power of science and best-in-class clinical care to advance human ability.

Q: Finally, getting back to the day to day at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab and maybe ending on a more positive note, is there any new research that looks promising you’d like to share? What do we have to look forward to?

A: Two years into our novel experiment of embedding science into the clinical environment, we’re taking advantage of a convergence of disciplines and discovery to leapfrog our understanding of the human brain. We are using multiple modalities to exploit the brain’s potential. By focusing on outcomes, we’re getting closer to finding cures for today’s most vexing brain injuries and diseases.

Navy Pier Ferris Wheel offers unique look at the city

(Published July 30, 2019)
By Elisa Shoenberger, Staff writer

The Navy Pier Ferris wheel is an iconic sight for tourists and Chicagoans.

Standing nearly 200 feet high, the Centennial Wheel is a behemoth, weighing 992,080 pounds, powered by 8 motors with over 10,000 bolts connecting the machine together. 

Devonne Phams, Senior Guest Experience Manager, and his staff are responsible for making sure riders have a great experience.

Phams has been with Navy Pier for 6 years, starting as an attraction attendant and working through the ranks to be promoted to Senior Guest Experience Manager. Part of his role is managing the staff who run the Ferris wheel, who ensure that guests have “a safe but fun time.”

Safety is a big part of their work, he said. Each morning, Phams’ team checks the Centennial Wheel to make sure everything is operational. They open and close doors, check the video screens and PA systems (in case a guest needs to contact the operator), as well as making sure the 42 gondolas are clean. 

On a good day during the week, Phams said they get close to 3,500 people on the Ferris wheel, but the number rises to 8,000 during the weekend. It can hold up to 420 people at a time with 8-10 people per gondola. 

The Centennial Wheel operates year round; with air conditioning for the hot summer months and heat for the cooler months. The Ferris wheel team monitors weather conditions, whether it is ice accumulation in the winter or thunderstorms. For safety precautions, the Ferris wheel is shut down if lightning strikes within 5 miles of Navy Pier.

At night, the Ferris wheel staff closes windows that guests may have opened during the day, collect and turn in any lost items, as well as cleaning the gondolas. They lock and secure the Ferris wheel for the night. And the cycle begins the next day.

Phams’ favorite part of the job is the people.

“We get people from all over the world,” he said. “They are totally amazed by the new Ferris wheel itself.” 

A particular moment that stands out for Phams is the annual Camp One Step. A nonprofit dedicated to provide educational and fun experiences for children with cancer brings a group of  kids to Navy Pier to ride the Ferris wheel. Each year, they put together a campfire song for Phams. “It’s really awesome,” he said.

Phams invites people to check out the Ferris wheel.

The view from the top is phenomenal. There’s nothing like it in the city,” he said.

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