Bridging the Gap for Our Community

November 29, 2021

A Highland Park resident passionate about golf is determined to create a development center for young golfers in the community. He is willing to make a substantial donation, but he would like other golfers to get involved. Meanwhile, baseball parents lament that the communities’ diamonds are not up to tournament standards. At the same time, funds need to be raised to develop a plaza connecting new playgrounds at Sunset Woods Park.

Who ya gonna call? The Parks Foundation of Highland Park.

“The Parks Foundation is separate but aligned with the Park District of Highland Park,” explained Rafael Labrador, the Parks Foundation Board of Directors president. “It is a community-led, independent, all-volunteer non-profit. We raise money for scholarships for families in need to participate in Park District programs, help with summer camp tuition, and raise funds for the capital projects that are in the Park District’s long-range planning but are not fully funded.”

As to the former, the Parks Foundation has established two programs. The first is SMILE (Scholarships Mean Involvement in Leisure for Everyone), the Park District initially started in 1992 to benefit Highland Park residents, and FYI (Foundation Youth Initiative), established in 2019 for Highwood residents. Its inaugural initiative was FYI Learn-to-Swim, which provides free beginners’ swim lessons for dozens of children annually.

The Champions Banquet is the Foundation’s primary annual spring fundraiser to support the scholarship programs. It has featured speakers such as Chicago sports legends former Blackhawk and Hockey Hall of Famer Chris Chelios and “Da Coach” Mike Ditka.

The Parks Foundation is now in its fourth year and has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants and donations. Its goal is “to raise funds to support and enhance exceptional Park District projects and provide scholarship funding to ensure that all community members can participate in Park District programs.”

Labrador suggests a more succinct tagline: “Helping our community connect through recreation.”

“There is a misconception,” Labrador said, “that the Park District has a ton of money and should be able to fund everything residents want. But from the upkeep and maintenance of the beaches, dozens of facilities, and 800 acres of parkland, there is a need to fill that gap that property tax revenue doesn’t provide. The Foundation can help bridge that gap. “

“The Park District is a taxing body, but only about half of our budget is funded from property tax revenue,” said Brian Romes, the Park District of Highland Park executive director.  “The rest comes from programming fees, memberships, state and federal grants, sponsorships, and private donations. That is where the Foundation can be a valuable resource for our Park District to benefit our community.”

How does the Foundation choose projects for fundraising? “I wish I could tell you there was a scientific method, but I can’t,” Labrador said. “Some of it is based on need and some on opportunities that present themselves. We are a small volunteer organization, and we’re still in the process of establishing our presence in the community. Still, we are proud to have made significant contributions to our community in four short years.”

Individual donations are a vital piece of the puzzle, Labrador said. For example, the amateur golfer who approached the Foundation wanted to donate the seed money to build a youth golf development center on an undeveloped acre at the Sunset Valley Golf Club because golf had enriched his life. With grant money and additional private donations, the center opened last spring. The Foundation also provides golf scholarships to eligible middle school and high school applicants through the Michael Goldman Memorial Golf Scholarship Fund.

“Individuals can direct their donations to the Foundation’s general fund or choose a specific earmark,” Labrador said. “They can direct where they want their donation to go, and the funds will only be used for that purpose.”

The Foundation is more than halfway to its fundraising goal for the new Sunset Woods playground seating plaza.  And, one of the most ambitious Park District projects that the Foundation is helping raise funds for is the new Park Avenue breakwater and concrete boat launch. The Park District recently passed an ordinance allowing the sale of $17 million in debt certificates, $2 million of which will be used exclusively for the breakwater and the boat ramp. This money will be augmented by a state grant and community donations, for which the Foundation has set a target of $300,000.

None of this money, Labrador said, is coming from property tax revenue.

“The community has a significant role in making some of these cool things happen that will enrich all of our lives and add to the value and pride in Highland Park that many of us feel,” he said. “This community has demonstrated a solid commitment to helping people, whether it be retirees on fixed incomes who can’t afford to take a Rec Center exercise class or a child whose family cannot afford summer camp.

“We all benefit from having fantastic amenities in our town and having our community able to connect. It’s part of what makes Highland Park strong. We all have a vested interest in seeing it grow. What we do with our tax dollars keeps us where we are. It is our role to raise the funds that will keep Highland Park in a leadership position.”

To learn more about the Parks Foundation of Highland Park, become a volunteer, or donate, visit or call (847) 831-3810.