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Bloomington family donates 80 pool passes to honor dad's birthday

City of Bloomington
The aquatic center in O'Neil Park will likely open in 2023.

When the rebuilt O’Neil Pool opens, it will feature multiple pools, waterslides, and Bloomington-Normal’s only lazy river.

All that will come with a price tag. The cost of admission will likely be upwards of $20.

That’s raised concerns among some in the community that the pool will be inaccessible to some families, including westside residents who live near the pool.

Bloomington mayor Mboka Mwilambwe in October announced an anonymous donor had given the city $20,000 to start an endowment to pay for O'Neil pool passes for families in need.

Now, a Bloomington family with deep ties to the pool is adding to the fund. Former Bloomington City Council member Tom Whalen raised his family across the street from O’Neil Park and has fond memories of summers spent at the pool. As his 70th birthday approached, Whalen’s family sought a way to honor the patriarch while giving back to the community.

On Thursday, the clan surprised Whalen by donating money in his name for 80 pool passes that eventually will go to kids in the community.

“I was very pleasantly surprised,” Whalen said. “It was quite an idea and they pulled it off without me knowing anything, which is amazing.”

Whalen’s daughter, Katie Whalen Novak, said the family started planning the surprise as soon as the endowment was announced. “He’s got what he needs,” she said of her father. “So, we thought wouldn’t it be cool if we make a donation (to) that endowment.”

Clandestine fundraising among families and friends generated nearly $2,000 for the fund that was created by the Illinois Prairie Community Foundation. The Boys and Girls Club of Bloomington-Normal will help identify families who can benefit from the donations.

Whalen said it’s important that all families have the opportunity to enjoy the pool as his family was able to do. He hopeful the endowment fund will help ensure that. “I don’t think, with this fund, that anybody will be left behind or left out,” Whalen said. “I’m hoping that every kid in the neighborhood, and surrounding neighborhoods will be able to enjoy it.

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Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.