Outstanding Coaches Honored at Gala

March 13, 2024

At this year’s Parks Foundation of Highland Park Champion’s Gala, on Saturday, April 13, the Park District of Highland Park is honoring three outstanding coaches with special awards.

Pere Berkowitz, Volunteer Coach of the Year
Tori Rowe, Coach of the Year
Kimmie DiNicola, Liza McElroy Legacy Award

Each of these exceptional individuals deserves to be recognized by the community for the work they have done to grow their Baseball, Gymnastics, and Figure Skating teams. They motivate team members to live the values of our Park District and be Welcoming, Caring, and Extraordinary every day! They consistently go above and beyond, and are a positive influence on their players, students, parents, our staff, and the community.

It is with great pride that we share their stories with you, and we look forward to the Champions Gala on April 13 when we can present them with the awards they so richly deserve. (Click on the photos to read their stories)

Learn more about the Champions Gala and purchase tickets, click here>>

Tori Rowe

Coach of the Year

Tori Rowe Flies Through the Air

She does it with the greatest of ease. And if your daughter thinks that’s just the best thing ever, then the Gymnastics Program at the Park District of Highland Park, with Tori Rowe, is where you want her to train.

Time in the Gym is the Best Time of All

As a kid and a teenager Tori Rowe loved being a competitive gymnast. “I was really proud of that,” she said, “It was my entire life growing up.” You can hear how happy it makes her to talk about it. Growing up in Wauconda, Tori trained at a gym in Mundelein. Her first job while in high school was coaching gymnastics, and Tori continued coaching whenever she came home on breaks from college—graduating with a degree in Psychology. “I have a lot of Early Childhood and Child Development in my background,” she said, including teaching preschool at the Wauconda Park District. She always saw herself as a teacher, which of course she is, although she adds “not in the traditional sense”. We know she’s a great teacher, and the simple proof is the success of her teams. “Child Psychology is really my jam!” Tori said. The words just flew out and landed perfectly. We know, and so do her team member’s parents, just how important that kind of knowledge is when you’re responsible for guiding young girls through the hard physical and mental aspects of being a competitive gymnast. Especially with the omnipresent impact of social media in their lives. More on that later.

Tori was our Gymnastics Coordinator and Coach at Centennial Arena from 2016 to 2018. She came back as our Gymnastics Coordinator and Team Head Coach in September of 2022. “It felt like I would be able to do much more for the program this time as the Coordinator and Head Coach, although I’m still coaching quite a bit,” she said, with just a bit of a laugh. Last year Tori coached the Level 3 team, and this year she is coaching the Level 3 and Level 4 teams. Under her leadership, the team grew from 5 girls to 12 in just one year. There are now 8 gymnasts successfully competing at Level 3, and 4 at Level 4. “It’s such a proud moment for me watching them compete and then seeing them up there on the podium because I’ve been there. I know how it feels, and now I get to enjoy that from another place as their coach. It’s an amazing thing.” There’s a very special coach/friend relationship that Tori has developed with her gymnasts. Everyone sees it. But with that come the tough conversations about balancing life with practice, and moving from the non-competitive Pre-Team to compete at Level 3, and up again to Level 4. Tori has those conversations with her team, and also with parents. “I will literally plop myself down at a table in the lobby to talk with a parent about their gymnast. It’s important.”

That’s also why Tori is so important to us, and why we are thrilled to be able to tell you a small part of her story.

Gymnastics is More Than Just the Skills

“What you consume every day is not just food for your body,” is something Tori tells her gymnasts. That’s brilliant. It leads into the larger discussions of physical and mental health that are so important for teenage girls. “When they say, ‘I’m tired’ after the first few weeks of the season, then we sit down and talk about what are you eating before and after practice, and good nutrition in general, but also sleep hygiene, getting proper rest, and where is your phone at night.” (OK parents… where is your phone at night?) “I ask them what kind of media are you consuming, and are your friendships meaningful and supportive, because all of that is critically important to their overall well-being.” Having Tori as a coach gives these gymnasts more than the skills they need to compete. She teaches them life skills that they carry with them back to their families, to school, and to the community. Tori is one of those people that makes us all better. We love that about her.

Ask the Centennial staff, her gymnasts, and their parents and you’ll hear “She always encourages me to be the best I can be,” and “Tori truly cares about each girl.” While gymnastics is an individual sport, what Tori has built and continues to grow is very much a team effort. “We win team medals, too!” We’re all about that at your Park District. Be the best you can be, and make sure your teammates are, too.

Congratulations, Tori Rowe, Coach of the Year! You embody everything we know is good about the community of Highland Park. All of us here are honored to know you and work with you. Above all, we are so happy to call you our friend.

Pere Berkowitz

Volunteer Coach of the Year

At the heart of the Park District is where you’ll find Pere Berkowitz, our Volunteer Coach of the Year. His is a story of playing sports around the world and bringing those lessons to the young baseball players in our leagues. 


How does a kid from Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, go from playing baseball for Bergen Township to playing semipro rugby in South Africa? “Sports was always really important in my life,” said Pere Berkowitz, the U11 Baseball Head Coach. “Growing up, I was a three-sport athlete—football, baseball, and wrestling—and I played some basketball, too.” OK, we get the picture. After high school came college at UMass Amherst where Pere did a little wrestling, but now rugby was really his thing.  After college, in 1998, Pere went to South Africa to play semi-pro rugby. You know rugby is a pretty tough sport, right? Well, it’s also in the DNA of South Africans, and this was just 3 years after the historic 1995 win by their famous national team. So South Africa was clearly the place to play rugby then. About a year later, Pere moved to Chicago to play for the Chicago Lions, a rugby club that was founded in 1964 and is still one of the premier clubs in the country. Named for the Art Institute lions, by the way. “I lived in the clubhouse, and a few other places, and when I got married my wife and I lived in Bucktown.” Pere was working in marketing for Baxter then, and when their first son, Benjamin, was born it was time for a larger place, closer to work. They fell in love with the Highland Park community, and have been here ever since. Pere spent some time in marketing at Medline, and for the past seven years has been VP of Marketing for Fresenius Kabi. The family grew. Benjamin is now 16, Phoebe is 14, and Jacob just turned 12.  

Coaching. It’s all about the kids. 

When Benjamin joined the Park District’s Sandlot Sluggers baseball program, Pere was recruited to be a volunteer coach. “Sports was such a big part of my life, and I love being with my kids, so signing on as a volunteer coach was just a natural thing.” We know Pere was perfect for the job because in 2016 he was handed the District’s first-ever Volunteer Coach of the Year award. “It’s felt really good when I was given that first award, and now to be honored with it after my final season coaching U11 is just incredibly rewarding.” Final season? “Parent volunteers coach because they love being with their kids, and then they get personally invested in the other kids on the team, their families, and the community, ” Pere explained. “And as long as your kids are OK with that, you keep going. Now is the perfect time to step back and let Jacob be a part of the U12 team without Dad as the coach.” We get that. But what about being at the games? “I’ll be the one cheering incredibly loudly from the sidelines!” Yeah, we hear you. 

Words of wisdom from the coach. 

Sports, especially team sports, give kids, and teens a way to stay healthy physically and mentally. At your Park District, our coaches also bring their experiences and teach their athletes life skills to take with them out into the world. Not everyone will take them to South Africa, but they will take them back to our community, their family, and later to their job. Some of the best staff members and young coaches we have come out of our Park District programs. Pere’s son Benjamin now works with Mike Divincenzo right here in our sports programs. He went from Sandlot Slugger to coach. That’s what we’re all about. 

Pere has great stories to tell. You should catch up with him on the sidelines and enjoy one or two. He gave us some simple words for players to live by, and we’ll pass them on here. “Never give up.” Good one. “Always keep a positive attitude.” That makes us smile. He has a three-fold approach for coaches.  

  1. Love the sport, and teach your players to love the sport.  
  2. Teach them how to get better.  
  3. Remember that the lessons learned in sports can be applied to the rest of your life.  

Simple enough. It certainly worked for Pere, his kids, and his players. 

All of us will be cheering with Pere on the sidelines this year. But now, we’re cheering for him as we say Congratulations, Pere Berkowitz, our Park District’s Volunteer Coach of the Year! 

Kimmie DiNicola

Liza McElroy Legacy Award

A Life on the Ice

Kimmie DiNicola is cool. Hard working. And maybe just a bit lucky. She’s doing exactly what she has always wanted to do from the time she was a little girl, and not everyone gets to live their life that way. Kimmie is happy. She’s a joy to talk to — and you should, if you get the chance — especially when she’s talking about ice. Smooth, new ice. Early morning ice that’s clear, cold, and just waiting to be cut into by the blades of her figure skates. Kimmie DiNicola lives and breathes ice skating, and we are so fortunate that she has been our coach for the past 28 years at the Park District of Highland Park.

And now — drum roll please — Kimmie DiNicola is this year’s Lisa McElroy Legacy Award winner for Coach of the Year!

In the Beginning

Kimmie’s life on the ice began when she was a youngster growing up in Highland Park, where her dad was a firefighter. Centennial Ice Arena was, and is, her home ice. Was she a park district kid, like so many of us? Sure… but it was really all about skating. For those who find their passion early on — Yo-Yo Ma at age 4 comes to mind — the hours spent practicing feel like minutes. You don’t watch the clock, because there’s never enough time in the day to do what you truly love.

Figure skating was paramount all the way until high school, where there was no rink. No skating coach. No figure skating team at Stevenson in Buffalo Grove. But there was a Dance Team, and Kimmie was a natural choreographer. The sparkle of the ice turned into the glitter of costumes and performing on stage, and carried her through high school. All good. But when you have a passion for something it won’t take a back seat, and the day after she turned 15, Kimmie walked into Centennial and asked for a job as an ice skating instructor. At the Park District, 15 was the magic number. She was hired on the spot and started teaching tot classes. For the first year and a half, she also shadowed the more experienced instructors, learning all about ability levels and technique. Best of all, she was on the ice, creating and choreographing routines, picking costumes, steering and cheering on the next generation of figure skaters to be the best they could.

Is being a figure skating coach a career? Her parents didn’t think it was. College was mandatory for success in life, so off to college it was. At Columbia, Kimmie got her degree in Linguistics. (Remember the hard worker part of the story?) And now, she could go back to being a figure skating coach. Not quite. A degree was a good start, but her parents said a Master’s was required for real success. Kimmie’s Master’s degree from National Louis University is in Language Arts, which opened up a wonderful job using her sign language skills as a school interpreter. Still, there were those summer breaks on the ice, coaching at Centennial. Then, because she really did love being in school, Kimmie went to North Park University and graduated with a two-year Nursing degree. That’s also cool.

Jumping ahead in our story just a bit, in 2001 Kimmie worked at Highland Park Hospital, bringing all her skills to that critically important job, and finding “love in the ER” when she met her husband Jon, who is a firefighter and Emergency Room Tech at the hospital. In the movies, that’s the happy ending.

But passion is a hard thing to ignore, and the ice is, after all, her passion.

Back to our Story: The Next Chapter

  1. The year Kimmie let passion win and became a full-time skating coach at Centennial. Her home ice. Ask anyone there—staff, students, parents, and you hear “Kimmie is an extraordinary coach,” “Kimmie is so dedicated,” and “Kimmie changes lives.” That’s because her passion is instantly contagious, and her skills are exceptional—both on the ice and in organizing our classes, programs, events, and competitions. “She has left a positive mark on the sport, and on the lives of countless skaters.” If you need more proof, on July 5, 2022, after texting and talking with her skaters all through the nightmare of the day before, her students showed up at Centennial in the morning to skate together, because they were a team. A team that Kimmie had developed. And so they came to support each other and skate on their home ice. With their coach

Kimmie and Jon have two children, Dominic, 13, and Gianna, 11. Do they skate? “Since they were 18 months old,” said Kimmie. Dominic plays hockey. Gianna spent a year as a figure skater. “One day, she came to me and said ‘Mom, I love figure skating, but I want to play hockey with my brother.’” And… she does. Of course she does.

Last year, Kimmie took on another challenge and became the Competition Director for the North Shore Winter Classic Competition. Ice, camera, action. Costumes, glitter, organization! Under her leadership, the Winter Classic became the standout skating competition in the area. Sounds like destiny to us.

In nominating Kimmie for the Liza McElroy Award, her supervisor said “… she is the heartbeat of our skating community. Her tireless efforts, passion, and ability to create a supportive and welcoming environment have significantly contributed to the success and growth of our program.” Truer words have never been spoken.

We are grateful, and honored to have Kimmie DiNicola lead our young skaters onto the ice at Centennial, and into a future where they will remember what it looks like, how it feels, and how important it is to always follow your passion.

From all of us at the Park District: Congratulations, Kimmie!