Wicker Park camp for boys cheered as ‘fun,’ ‘welcoming’ as it aims to build the ‘whole person’

Midtown Center’s summer program for Chicago youth opens in new Wicker Park location.

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A boy makes a jump shot during a basketball game Monday at the Midtown Boys’ Summer Achievement Camp in Wicker Park

A boy makes a jump shot during a basketball game Monday at the Midtown Boys’ Summer Achievement Camp in Wicker Park

Elizabeth Rymut/Sun-Times

Coming down to the wire, Rene Madrid, 11, and Roman Arellano, 8, stood at the free throw line.

The ten-foot hoop of the Our Lady of Unity Parish gymnasium towered over their four-foot heads. Arellano shot first; his ball ricocheted toward the sideline. As he went to rebound it, Madrid set his feet and sunk his shot. A dozen boys watching on the court cheered. Madrid had just won his first game of knockout at the Midtown Center’s summer program for boys.

More than 200 boys are attending the program. On weekdays from June 27 to Aug. 5, it is open to rising 4th through 12th graders. In addition to sports, the boys attend classes, personal development seminars and engage in one-on-one mentoring. Run by youth development nonprofit Midtown Center, the program has been around since 1993.

It is their first year at the Wicker Park location; it has also been at a school in Bucktown. Along with the parish gym and classrooms, they will have access to the sports fields of nearby Josephinum Academy of the Sacred Heart this year.

The program is aimed at low-income students around Chicago, the majority of which are Chicago Public or charter school students. The cost of the six-week camp is $275, although Community Outreach Director Vince Meno said that it would be higher if it weren’t for the programs’ donors.

They lay emphasis on the games in order to get the boys excited about the program — “No kids want to come to a camp for classes and mentoring,” explained the 41-year-old Meno. However, the program tries to go a bit deeper than most summer camps.

They offer school-like classes, which range from typical subjects including mathematics and science to others such as chess and broadcast journalism. High school boys attend one of five “apprenticeships” in either graphic design, computer science, engineering, architecture or business.

None of the teachers at the boy’s program this year are current CPS teachers. None of the staff is female either.

“Some call it antiquated, but it works for us. We feel the boys get mentored best by other men,” Meno said.

Midtown Center is a nonreligious nonprofit; however, the personal development seminars and one-on-one mentorship program are “rooted in Catholic moral and social teachings,” going back to the organization’s founding by members of the Catholic Church in 1965, according to their website.

In particular members of the Catholic organization Opus Dei helped found it and they still support it, even offering program mentors room and board. The mentors are high performing college students who get to know the boys and speak with them about their home life and discuss things like the “virtue of the week” or goal-setting.

Their attention to the “whole person,” however, is what draws parents to it, Meno said, and why some boys spend over an hour on public transit to get there. “Parents know it has a good impact on their son or daughter so they make the extra effort to get there,” Meno said. (There is a separate program for girls.)

For many boys, it’s just an opportunity to make friends. Meno said that this is one of the main goals of the program.

“I think it’s fun,” Salvador Rivera, 16, said. “It’s a fun atmosphere, it’s nice and welcoming.” His friend, Jonathan Gutierrez, 16, concurred. The two rising juniors met at the camp years before and were on their way out to grab lunch nearby, a privilege afforded only to the older boys.

Many like Gutierrez and Rivera stay year after year, will attend the after-school programs during the year and even return to help out.

“I came here at a time in my life when I was at a low point, having issues with confidence and making friends,” Ali Morales said. The 19-year old DePaul student said the camp helped address that, and he pointed to one of the soccer instructors who he said he met when he was younger. The two are now close friends. “I felt like I wanted to give back.”

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