Highland Park is a swimming community.

There are many opportunities for supervised swimming between the Aquatic Center at the Highland Park Rec Center, Hidden Creek Aqua Park, and Rosewood Beach. But not everyone has the financial means to afford swimming lessons for their children. To bridge that gap, the Parks Foundation of Highland Park launched its Foundation for Youth Scholarship Fund (FYI) Learn-to-Swim, which funds free beginning swim lessons for Highwood families in need.

Introduced in 2019, Learn-to-Swim was the first program of the FYI Scholarship Fund established specifically for Highwood residents. Because Highwood is not within the Park District taxing boundaries, residents cannot apply for the established SMILE scholarship program that assists Park District residents in financial need.

“Highwood is an important part of our community – our children go to school together — FYI was created to assist Highwood residents with financial need,” says Rafael Labrador, the Parks Foundation Board of Directors president. “We wanted to level the playing field,” Says Board of Directors member Katie Irey, who moved to Highland Park in 2018, “I had the benefit of growing up learning to swim through park district swimming classes. We live so close to the lake every child in our community must learn to swim. Creating access to swim lessons for more families and more children in our neighborhood is very meaningful to me.”

The FYI Learn-to-Swim program is offered at the Aquatic Center. It is open to children ages 5-12. “We open it up to our paddlers and little swimmers,” says Aquatic Center Manager Kari Acevedo. “The age-appropriate classes teach the basics, including getting used to the water, raising the child’s comfort level, arm placement, and breathing techniques.”

Swimming is an essential life skill, Labrador states. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), more children ages 1-14 drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury death after motor vehicle crashes.

Demographics are also a factor. Highwood has a lower per capita income, a higher poverty rate, and a more significant number of Hispanic families, all of which are associated with lower access to swimming lessons. According to a 2017 study by the U.S.A. Swimming Foundation, 60 percent of Hispanic children don’t learn how to swim. “Drownings in the United States disproportionately affect minority populations and others who might not have access to swimming lessons,” Labrador says. “It is important to help children gain confidence to navigate in the water safely.”

Acevedo oversees the FYI Learn-to-Swim Program. The Foundation Board finds eligible families through coordination with the school district and the Family Service of Lake County’s Nuestro Center, which provides various social services to Highwood’s Latino population.

“This is so important,” Acevedo says. “Everybody should have an opportunity to learn this life-saving skill. Many parents thank us, tell us their child loves the program, and ask about opportunities to join in future classes. There are between 8-18 spots for FYI Learn-to-Swim scholarships per session. To date we have provided 65 FYI Learn-to-Swim lessons.”

Money for FYI comes not from property taxes but community donations, along with state and local grants. Labrador considers programs such as FYI an imperative. “It comes down to how you define community,” he says. “To me, it’s pretty clear that if our kids go to school together, they should have the same opportunities to learn important life skills like swimming, and it shouldn’t be based on how much their parents earn.”

It was such programs as FYI and SMILE that inspired Irey to join the Parks Foundation Board when she moved here. “I wanted to become more involved with the community,” she says. “I liked the Foundation’s mission of supporting the people of the community and the parks; I have two little kids, so we utilize the parks all the time.”

Labrador echoes these sentiments. The Parks Foundation’s volunteer and donation-driven efforts are “an example of your neighbors stepping up to help each other. It’s about people in the community identifying a need and moving forward to fill it, and you can help.”

“I want to make sure we continue to invest in the great amenities our community offers to residents,” he continues, “and the Park District is the crown jewel of that. There should be equity in access.”

The Parks Foundation of Highland is a 501c3 resident-driven organization aligned with the Park District of Highland Park mission. In addition to raising money for scholarship programs, the Foundation also raises funds for Park District capital projects, such as the new Sunset Park playground seating plaza.

A $100 donation sends one student to FYI Learn-to-Swim Lessons. To donate, volunteer, and learn more about the Parks Foundation of Highland Park:

Growing up, Kari Acevedo’s family had a lake house in Michigan. It was important to her mother that Kari and her twin sister take swimming lessons. “My mother didn’t know how to swim, and she didn’t feel confident to be able to help if we weren’t acclimated to the water,” Acevedo continues.

Today, Acevedo is the Park District’s Aquatics Manager and is passionate about children learning how to swim. It’s not only a skill that lasts a lifetime, but it’s a skill that saves lives. According to the Center for Disease Control, drowning is the second leading cause of death in children ages 1-4 in the United States. For children ages 1-14, drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury death after motor vehicle crashes.

One of Highland Park’s most inviting amenities is its access to water, from the Hidden Creek AquaPark to its Lake Michigan beaches. “For kids, swimming and summer go hand in hand,” Acevedo says. “They think of going to the water park and the beach. But, if they don’t know how to swim, their participation is limited.”

The Park District offers progressive age-appropriate swim classes, from Parent & Child Water Readiness (ages 6-18 months) through Stroke Development for advanced swimmers, focusing on building endurance and preparing aspiring competitive swimmers. The classes are focused on building swimming skills such as breathing techniques, arm placement, kicking, and foot placement.

Weekly classes are held at the Recreation Center of Highland Park (1207 Park Ave. W) and run from April through May 18. Private lessons are also available. The lessons encourage parental participation to help reinforce skills and swimming techniques. Parents or guardians can join students in a weekend open swim.

There are other benefits to learning how to swim. In the first place, Acevedo states, it’s fun. According to the CDC, swimming is America’s fourth most popular recreational sport, after walking, running, and cycling. Just over a third of the population over the age of 16–about 91 million—swim in oceans, lakes, and rivers annually.

“It’s never too late to learn how to swim,” Acevedo states. Swimming is regarded as one of the best forms of exercise. It uses muscles in the arms, legs, shoulders, buttocks, and other body areas. It also has cardiovascular benefits. A low-impact sport, swimming is an ideal recuperative exercise for athletes who have been injured and senior citizens.

“As a mother,” Acevedo jokes, “I loved the days my kids took swim lessons. It increased their energy level and helped them sleep at night. They got a good workout, but they didn’t think of it as a workout because they were having too much fun.”

Scholarships for swim lessons are available for families in need through SMILE (Highland Park residents) and Foundation Youth Initiative or FYI (Highwood residents). Learn more about Park District swim lessons.

Date: Saturday, May 14
Time: 9-11am
Location: The Preserve of Highland Park (1201 Park Ave West)

Gratitude Generation (G2) Teen Board is teaming up with the Park District and the Parks Foundation of Highland Park to host a walk-a-thon at The Preserve of Highland Park.   There is a minimum donation of $10 to participate. Walkers will have an opportunity to help seed The Preserve grounds during and after the walk. 

Funds raised from the event will go toward the purchase of trees that the G2 Teen Board plans to plant at The Preserve of Highland Park later in the year.


About Gratitude Generation

Gratitude Generation (G2) provides community-service opportunities in the Chicago area for children, families and organizations. Their mission is to create more grateful, happy, healthy children who will grow into contributing adults and improve the lives of people around them.

G2 Teen Board, a group of committed teens, is hosting this Walk-a-Thon event.  This group meets twice a month to design and execute service projects for the community – gaining leadership training, collaboraing, learning from and supporting each other.


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 pfhpil.org or call (847) 831-3810.

The Parks Foundation of Highland Park is seeking applicants for golf lesson scholarships aimed at helping local youth learn and grow through the game of golf. The 2022 Michael Goldman Memorial Golf Scholarship is available to Highland Park and Highwood middle and high school students who are facing economic, social, or emotional challenges. The opportunity includes one-on-one golf instruction by the Park District of Highland Park professional staff as well as loaner clubs and use of Sunset Valley Golf Club’s world-class practice facilities.

This third annual scholarship is available thanks to a generous $10,000 donation from the family of longtime Highland Park resident Michael Goldman, whose devotion to the sport throughout a time of illness demonstrated that golf is more than a game – but rather, a means to overcome obstacles and foster physical and emotional well-being. His family’s goal is to help young people develop the focus and discipline that golf inspires while enjoying a healthy, outdoor activity that offers lifelong benefits.  Over the past two years, 12 students have participated in the program.  

“Golf teaches each of us about ourselves. How we deal with the many aspects of the game gets us ready for what happens in our daily life,” said Rob Saunders, PGA professional and Park District of Highland Park Golf Program Manager. “We encourage kids who need some help to apply for this program and look forward to making these lessons a really enjoyable experience.”

Highland Park and Highwood students ages 12-18 who have an interest in learning to play golf and demonstrate need are eligible. Applications are currently available and will be accepted through April. Each participant will receive approximately eight private lessons plus practice time and the chance to develop a personal relationship with a caring golf pro and member of the Park District of Highland Park staff.

For more information, please contact Rob Saunders at [email protected] or 847-579-4162.

The Parks Foundation of Highland Park is dedicated to the belief that every resident deserves the opportunity for an enriched healthy life. The Foundation supports and enhances the Park District of Highland Park’s exceptional facilities and provides resources to ensure that all community members are able to participate in Park District programs. The Parks Foundation of Highland Park is an independent, community-led, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. For more information, visit https://pfhpil.org

The Park District of Highland Park had a mantra throughout the pandemic: health and safety above all; be innovative and deliver essential services to the community, and be fiscally responsible. This mantra is now starting to pay off.

Prudent financial planning and best practice cost-cutting solutions by the Board of Commissioners and Administration have put the Park District in an enviable position to fund maintenance and improvement projects across the community in the coming years. These projects will maintain and improve the Park District experience for generations to come.

The Park District has emerged from the pandemic shutdown on sure financial footing despite the restrictions and limitations in serving the community. And it has retained its Aaa bond rating. 

“The Park Board of Commissioners were diligent in keeping a watchful eye on the financials with semi-monthly Finance Committee meetings,” said Mari Lynn Peters, Director of Finance for the Park District. “A series of cost-saving measures were key in ensuring the Park District would remain viable throughout and after the pandemic. These included a salary freeze for all employees, the unfortunate furloughing of some employees and re-assigning others, reduced operating hours for numerous facilities, and the transition of the printed program brochure to digital.”  
Another factor that played a large part in the Park District’s solid financial situation was that “outdoor programs saved us,” said Peters. “Our outdoor tennis, athletics, and golf programs had record numbers. Staff put our thinking caps on and offered new online program content and purchased a tent to have fitness classes outside.”

“Our staff was more innovative than they’ve ever been, and their creativity allowed us to find ways to serve the community. Every single person who works for the Park District had to step up and, in many cases, do things outside their normal roles. They sacrificed a lot for the sake of our mission,” said Brian Romes, Executive Director for the Park District.  

He also credited the Park District Board of Commissioners for their “important role in getting us through this fiscally” and the residents for their support and trust. During the pandemic, he said, “the community supported our programs and trusted that we were safe and acting responsibly. That was a difference-maker.”

Planning for the Future

One of the top priorities cited by residents in a 2019 Attitude and Interest Survey was the continued maintenance of the District’s facilities that support its programs. The Park District’s financial planning makes it possible to map out critical projects included in its five-year capital plan, which runs from 2022-2026. These include repairing or replacing asphalt parking lots, replacing basketball and tennis courts, replacing vehicles and equipment around our parks and facilities. 

As the Park District is wrapping up GreenPrint Master Plan projects at Sunset Woods Park and The Preserve of Highland Park, the new 100-acre passive recreation and natural area, planning has also begun to renovate areas at Centennial Ice Arena, address erosion at Lakefront Properties, and much more.

Other large-scale projects are also now in the works. On Oct. 26, the Park District Board approved an ordinance to sell $17 million in debt certificates to initiate long-needed infrastructure projects. The time was right to sell the debt certificates to help the Park District attend to mission-critical infrastructure. Interest rates, Peters said, are at historic lows. The Park District is also retiring two previous debt certificates from 2012 and 2013, according to Peters. Paying them off early, she said, will save the Park District roughly $300,000. 

“While staff identified over $20 million in long-term capital improvement projects that remain unfunded, with help from the Parks Foundation of Highland Park, as well as state and federal grant opportunities, the Park District is in a good position to maintain what we have and make improvements where they are needed most,” Romes said. 

“This is a very exciting time for our Park District,” said Park Board Commissioner Jennifer Freeman. “We keep putting one foot in front of the other, trusting our staff, and making progress.” 

The Parks Foundation is dedicated to ensuring that every Highland Park/Highwood resident has the opportunity for an enriched, healthy lifestyle. Our scholarships help families in financial need participate in Park District programs. The Foundation funds…

The Parks Foundation Board is currently seeking new members and volunteers! If you have a passion for your community and your parks, we would love to have you be a part of our team.

About the Parks Foundation of Highland Park 

The Parks Foundation of Highland Park, an independent, community-led, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, was established in 2016 to support access to the world-class Park District programs and facilities that enhance community life in Highland Park.

For more information about the Parks Foundation go to pfhpil.org or call 847-579-3136.

10/14/20 – The Parks Foundation of Highland Park is offering new rewards this Fall to those who help fellow community members participate in Park District programs. The “Friend of the Parks” drive supports scholarships that allow Highland Park and Highwood families with financial constraints to enroll in athletics, camps, creative classes, and nature programs. For a limited time, supporters can receive complimentary admission to a variety of Park District facilities.

Studies show that recreational activities are critical to physical, mental, and emotional well-being in these challenging times. Yet, the Foundation recognizes that thousands of community members are now prevented from taking part in Park District programs due to economic difficulties. Even before the pandemic, 17% of Highwood residents and 6.5% of Highland Park residents lived below the poverty level. Since March, more than half of U.S. households have suffered a loss of employment income. The Friend of the Parks campaign aims to ensure that all can enjoy an enriched, healthy lifestyle.

“The Park District of Highland Park is doing a fantastic job giving residents ways to safely stay fit and active through the pandemic,” noted Foundation Board President Bob Bernstein. “We’re committed to helping all community members access its great programs and facilities. We hope everyone will consider becoming a Friend of the Parks and join us in our mission to make sure no one is left behind.”

Since 2016, the Foundation has helped bring the community together through events such as the Champion’s Banquet honoring young athletes and coaches, the Firecracker 5K Independence Day run, and the recent Bike the Parks event that provided free maps to safely guide hundreds of cyclists through ten of Highland Park’s 44 parks. 

Donations to the organization have supported over $150,000 in scholarships annually through its SMILE Grant-in-Aid program and Highwood-inclusive Foundation Youth Initiative. The Foundation also recently funded the new Youth Golf Development and Short Game Center at Sunset Valley Golf Club to introduce young golfers to the game.

Donors who give $100 or more before December 31st will receive Friend of the Parks Passports valued at up to $100. Passport benefits include a round of Mini-Golf at River’s Edge Adventure Golf, swimming at Hidden Creek Aqua Park, skating at Centennial Ice Arena, a bucket of balls at Highland Park Golf Learning Center, cross-country skiing at Heller Nature Center, and more. Contributions in any amount will help provide Park District access to lower-income families. 

The Parks Foundation of Highland Park is dedicated to the belief that every resident deserves the opportunity for an enriched, healthy lifestyle. The Foundation supports and enhances the Park District of Highland Park’s exceptional facilities and provides resources to ensure that all community members are able to participate in Park District programs. The Parks Foundation of Highland Park is an independent, community-led, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. For more information, visit https://www.pfhpil.org