• Whitley Pleas

Gorton Stays Vibrant With Creative Solutions Amid Pandemic

By Whitley Pleas Even as the pandemic brought unprecedented change in 2020, Gorton Community Center Executive Director Amy Wagliardo ensured that the building on Illinois Road would continue to be a hub for community engagement. COVID-19 forced Wagliardo and her team to learn how to create virtual programming for those ensconced at home. Gorton also held outdoor events, such as “COVID Comedy Relief Under the Stars,” and indoor shows with limited capacity, such as film screenings and more. The community center continued to carry out its mission of connecting Lake Forest residents with entertainment and programs to take their minds off of troubled times.

Jim Passalino interviews a young girl during Gorton Community Center's annual Dog Day.


Gorton also took steps to raise the morale of residents. The community center handed out yard signs with positive messages and invited people to tie ribbons to the Gorton fence in support of first responders. In 2016, Wagliardo applied for the executive director position. Her background in non-profit arts (she worked as the director of operations for the Dallas Symphony Association) made her an excellent candidate. She accepted the job because it combined her passion for the arts with a desire to do meaningful work in the community.

“I was thrilled when the Gorton job came open,” she said. “And I was thrilled that they picked me!” Before becoming a community center in 1972, Gorton had served as a school for 71 years, with actor Robin Williams being the most notable alumnus. Wagliardo remarked that previous students enjoy coming back and reminiscing. “On the second floor, it pretty much looks like how it did when it was a school,” she said. “People say ‘I had homeroom in this room,’ and they talk about remembering it.” In its nearly 50 years as a community center, Gorton faced its roughest moment in 2010, when a revenue shortfall nearly caused it to close its doors for good. But Lake Forest resident Brenda Dick was hired as the executive director to try to save it, and she helped raise millions of dollars to put Gorton on solid footing. Amid other upgrades, the aging theater was renovated and renamed the John & Nancy Hughes Theater. John Hughes, a Lake Forest resident at the time, was a famous Hollywood director, best known for film classics such as Home Alone and Planes, Trains and Automobiles – both of which are shown frequently at Gorton (including a 1 p.m. showing of Home Alone on Friday, Nov. 26). December will feature typically robust programming, such as “Peanuts Jazz” with the Chris White Trio on Dec. 9 and the “Holly Jolly Concert” with the Lake Forest Civic Orchestra on Dec. 19.


Though busy overseeing the vibrant community center, Wagliardo maintains a positive outlook. “I feel really lucky to work here at Gorton,” she said. “I work with an amazing team.”

Want to support Gorton? Find Gorton Community Center merchandise at the Lake Forest Station Pop-Up Shop, open for a limited time this holiday season. All proceeds are distributed back to the participating organization. Find details at LakeForestStation.com. Go to gortoncenter.org to check out programming and events..