Local initiative aims to help children, teens

By Paolo Cisneros

For the first time in the history of the three organizations, the city of Champaign, the Champaign Park District and the Champaign School District Unit 4 are teaming up to provide educational and recreational opportunities for children and teens in Champaign.

The plan is being referred to as the “Garden Hills Initiative” because its programs will primarily serve children in the Garden Hills neighborhood of the city.

“There were some issues with young people getting into fights and drugs in that area,” said Joe DeLuce, park district director of recreation. “We don’t really have many park district facilities in Garden Hills, so we thought we would try to do something to help out the community.”

While Champaign police report no major increases in juvenile crimes in Garden Hills over the past year, the lack of safe activities available to children in the area made the initiative an important priority for local officials, said Laura Auteberry, park district marketing and development director.

“One of the main reasons the community felt it was necessary was that there tends to be a large collection of youths in that area with nothing to do,” she said.

The yearlong program will feature an increased level of activities during the summer months. The three agencies will work to provide employment opportunities and college application aid to high school students, while offering summer camps and exposure to art, music and other cultural activities to elementary school students. These educational components of the initiative are being called “Operation Hope” by administrators.

The program “Summer Thrills at Garden Hills” will include six nights of concerts, basketball tournaments and other events.

“What we’re trying to do is expose these kids to things they might not otherwise get to see,” said Michael McFarland, assistant superintendent of achievement and pupil services for Unit 4.

The idea to host Operation Hope activities sprang from the desire of school officials to prevent problems that could potentially arise during the students’ summer vacation, McFarland added.

Officials spoke with students from the Garden Hills neighborhood to hear their ideas and requests before planning the activities accordingly.

“This year we decided to be proactive and devise something before the summer hits,” he said. “A lot of times people sit back when they see a problem, but we seldom take the time to listen to the kids involved and find out how to change things.”

The three entities will split the costs of the programs, which are estimated to run to $218,000.

At the conclusion of the year, officials will meet with students to evaluate the initiative and determine how it can be improved.

“All the response we’ve gotten has been very positive,” said DeLuce. “People are really happy to see it happening.”