Wicker Park camp for boys has been acclaimed as ‘fun’, ‘welcoming’ as it aims to build the ‘whole person’
Going down to the wire, 11-year-old René Madrid and 8-year-old Roman Arellano stood on the free-throw line.
The ten-foot hoop from Our Lady of Unity Parish Gymnasium towered over their four-foot heads. Arellano fired first; his ball ricocheted towards the sideline. As he was about to rebound, Madrid put his feet down and sank his shot. A dozen boys watching on the field cheered. Madrid had just won their first knockout game at the Midtown Center boys’ summer programme.
More than 200 boys participate in the program. During the week, from June 27 to August 5, it is open to students in grades 4 to 12. In addition to sports, the boys attend classes, personal development seminars and participate in individual mentoring. Run by Midtown Center, a nonprofit youth development organization, the program has been running since 1993.
This is their first year at the Wicker Park location; he also attended a school in Bucktown. In addition to the parish gymnasium and classrooms, this year they will have access to the sports fields of the nearby Académie Josephinum du Sacré-Coeur.
The program is aimed at low-income Chicago students, the majority of whom are Chicago public or charter school students. The cost of the six-week camp is $275, though community outreach director Vince Meno said it would be higher if it weren’t for the programs’ donors.
They emphasize games to get the boys excited about the program – “No kid wants to come to camp for lessons and mentoring,” Meno, 41, explained. However, the program tries to go a little further than most summer camps.
They offer school-like courses, which range from typical subjects such as math and science to others such as chess and broadcast journalism. High school students take one of five “apprenticeships” in graphic design, computer science, engineering, architecture or business.
None of the teachers in the boys program this year are currently CPS teachers. None of the staff are female either.
“Some call it archaic, but it works for us. We think boys are better looked after by other men,” Meno said.
Midtown Center is a non-religious, non-profit organization; however, the personal development seminars and individual mentorship program are “rooted in Catholic moral and social teachings,” dating back to the organization’s founding by members of the Catholic Church in 1965, according to their website.
In particular, members of the Catholic organization Opus Dei helped found it and they still support it, even providing program mentors with room and board. Mentors are high-achieving students who get to know the boys and talk to them about their home life and discuss things like the “virtue of the week” or goal setting.
However, their attention to the “whole person” is what attracts parents, Meno said, and why some boys spend more than an hour on public transport to get there. “Parents know it has a good impact on their son or daughter, so they go the extra mile to make it happen,” Meno said. (There is a separate program for girls.)
For many boys, it’s just a chance to make friends. Meno said that’s one of the main goals of the program.
“I think it’s fun,” said 16-year-old Salvador Rivera. “It’s a fun atmosphere, it’s pleasant and welcoming.” His friend, Jonathan Gutierrez, 16, agreed. The two rising juniors had met at camp years before and were about to go out for lunch nearby, a privilege given only to older boys.
Many like Gutierrez and Rivera stay year after year, will participate in after-school programs during the year and will even come back to help.
“I came here at a time in my life when I was at my lowest point, I had confidence issues and I was making friends,” Ali Morales said. The 19-year-old DePaul student said the camp helped solve that problem, and he pointed to one of the football coaches he said he met when he was younger. The two are now close friends. “I felt like I wanted to give back.”