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: