How Our Community Grows at the Park District: Part 3

July 28, 2023

In Part 2 of our 3-part series on “Where Community Grows,” we presented four more stories from members of our community who play, work, make friends, stay fit, and enjoy the real sense of community that the Park District provides. In Part 3, we have more inspirational stories from your friends and neighbors.

Where It Begins

Millie Nanus, who is a Mighty Oak, is happy to tell you everything she likes about the ParkSchool program, Safety Village, Imagination Station (“Which was amazing!”), Ice Skating (“I love it!”), and so many more things at the Park District—all while you talk with her mom, Lisa, who grew up in Highland Park and enjoyed the pool and camps. Now, Millie loves gymnastics, and Lisa has done the Mom & Tot gymnastics program with Henry, the youngest. Everyone enjoys the Heller Nature Center, Rosewood Beach (“It’s awesome!”), and the 100 Days of Summer is posted on the refrigerator, of course. The Under the Big Top Dance was a big hit for both Millie and her older sister, Nora, and Lisa liked that this new version is “more inclusive.” This is a family that’s deeply connected to the community through the Park District. Just ask Millie.

Lori Fink‘s daughter Sloane is 5 and has been in the Kinderdance program for 3 years. “If you ask her to pick one activity she wants to do, it’s Ballet,” said Lori. “Rebecca (our Dance Coordinator) is amazing. She’s so calm and patient with the kids, and I’m blown away by how she runs the recitals with hundreds of kids and families. Sloane is super excited to be there, she’s confident about what she’s doing, and I feel like it’s made her a leader.” Lori also said that “the Park District knows that the kids are there to learn and be serious about dance, but also to always have a good time. They understand fun.” Kids come up to Sloane at other events around the District and say Hi! “When I ask her how she knows these kids, it’s often through dance.” Community is having fun with your friends. Jason Fink coaches Little Sluggers and first-grade baseball at the Park District, and AYSO Soccer in Highland Park, extending the family’s connections to the community.

Where it Grows

Judy and Stephen Smiley moved to Highland Park in 1974, and have been Rec Center members for about 7 years. Their children, now grown with families of their own, were always involved with Park District sports and camps. They have wonderful memories of going to Twin Pools (where Hidden Creek AquaPark is now) every afternoon with their neighbors and the kids. Community grows where people get together. All of the parks, including West Ridge, Sunset Woods, and Woodbridge, were part of the regular routine, where families met and kids played.

Judy talked about Baker Ball with particular fondness, and, as everyone who was in the program does, remarked on how Marv Baker knew every kid’s name and every parent’s name, whether on the ballfield or just walking down the street. That’s what community is all about.

What Judy and Stephen like about the Recreation Center is what you hear from all the members: “The staff is so welcoming and friendly, and everything is so accessible.” We appreciate the kind words.

The Next Generation of Community Builders

Lia Sansiper graduated on May 14, 2023, from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, having earned her B.S. degree in Elementary Education. The very next week, in her role as a Camp Director, she was already working on the structure for a brand new summer camp here at the district. It’s a great story that starts back in 2009.

Highland Park is Lia’s hometown, and she was a ‘Park District kid’. One of the things she loved most, and remembers well, was her experience at the district’s summer arts camp called S.W.E.A.T. Shop (later Spotlighters and Take Center Stage) which encompassed making art, creating ceramics, doing theatre performances, and learning American Sign Language (ASL). “I went to it the first time with a couple of my friends when I was going into third grade, and I kept going through sixth grade because I just loved what the camp was about. Everything we did was so memorable, and the counselors were awesome!” She was also enrolled in the After Camp program, which comes up again later in this story. Asked about the ASL class, Lia said “It was really cool learning sign language from the camp directors, and I still remember the chorus of We Are The World by Michael Jackson.” A kid goes to a Park District summer arts camp, learns about sign language, and is inspired to emulate her counselors. That’s what happens in a community.

Lia ‘aged out’ of that summer arts camp, and having been inspired and mentored by great counselors—“Susan was a real influence for all of the years I was there.”—she decided to sign up for the Counselors in Training (CIT) program and was a part of that each summer in 2013, 2014, and 2015. “I wanted to be just like my counselors,” and she wanted to learn “What went on behind the scenes,” at the camps. CITs pay to go to a summer camp, but get training to help counselors with all of that camp’s daily requirements, including check-in, setting up, and cleaning. “Four days a week we had responsibilities, but one day was always a field trip when we got to just be a camper, traveling to places like Six Flags, or going horseback riding.” Those years reinforced for Lia that she “Loved to teach!” Her CIT experience led her to become a full counselor, at Camp Sunshine for ages 4 and 5, where she has been mentoring kids and giving back to the community for the past five years.

The new summer camp that Lia has designed, with her Co-Director, Sarah Aronson, is called SPOT (an acronym for Summer Play at Oak Terrace). It’s for kids ages 6–12 and includes a number of things that were important to Lia when she was a camper. “Every day is packed with fun things to do: art, cooking, sports & games, music & entertainment, and some special events like playing pickleball and enjoying a nature walk.” Art includes both planned and free creative time, and cooking has included making delicious fruit spring rolls and beautiful rainbow waffles. Lia stressed that accessibility was a key component in the development of this camp. Parents can sign their child up for one week at a time, rather than a 3- or 4-week session like many of the other camps, which helps families plan for vacations and other summertime activities, and also makes the camp more affordable. “That’s really important, and so we’re able to have a lot of siblings in SPOT.” It’s a community thing. Most of the activities are held right at the camp (now based at Danny Cuniff Park), but each week campers have a swim day—with lessons and free swim time—at Hidden Creek AquaPark. “The campers love to go on the bus and say hi to Larry the driver!”

And, as if running that camp is not enough, Lia is also now the Director of the After Camp program this summer, bringing that part of her own camp experience full circle. “Over the years, as a camper and as a staff member, I’ve made so many amazing friends here, and we hang out together!” One by one, community grows.

Camper. CIT. Counselor. Director. Educator. We are so proud to have Lia as a member of our Park District team, and to know her as someone who is working every day to help us build a strong, vibrant, caring community in Highland Park.


Did you recognize yourself, a family member, a friend, or a neighbor in these stories? We hope so. And, we hope you’ll share your story of “Where Community Grows” with us. You can find out about everything we do here on our website and take a minute to watch our “Where Community Grows” video.

See you around the parks!