Parents waited in line for hours. Some had brought folding lawn chairs and placed their kids in wagons, giving them water and snacks to ride out the long wait. Others came alone or in large groups with friends, speaking amongst themselves in Spanish, English, and Mandarin. Some parents had camped out since 4:30am. Others had taken the day off work to come.
They were gathered outside the McKinley Park Fieldhouse on a Saturday morning in May to sign their kids up for one of Chicago Park District’s most sought out programs—summer day camps.
Running from July 5 to August 12, the programs provide around six hours of care every weekday starting at $110 over the course of the program—a great deal compared to similar camps at places like the YMCA, which can run up to $210 per week. But by the end of the day, many parents were turned away.
One of the Park District’s core values is “Children First,” which their website describes as “[to] bring children and families into our parks and give them great reasons to stay and play for a lifetime.” In their budget appropriations document, the Park District states they “ensure that all families and children have access to affordable programming where they can play, learn and grow.”
Yet year after year, many parents who want to enroll their children in day camps and other programs are turned away. Obstacles like language barriers and lack of internet access alongside insufficient programming seem to especially affect South Side parents, some of whom feel like the park activities are not meant for them and their families.
Maria Negrete, who has lived in McKinley Park with her husband and two daughters for ten years, said that on three different occasions she tried to register her two daughters at the McKinley Park spring and summer programs, but that every time she tried, she was not able to.
Negrete, who doesn’t speak English, said she once showed up to the fieldhouse in McKinley Park to register her daughters into the swimming program and when she inquired to a staff member about registration, she was handed a flier in English with instructions to go home and sign up online.
Negrete said she doesn’t use a computer very much and the information on the website was in English, so she struggled to understand the information and wasn’t able to register her daughters into swimming. Another time, she visited the fieldhouse in early spring to register her daughters for summer classes because she learned that spots fill quickly, but she was turned away because slots were full.
One of Negrete’s daughters, Maritza, who is a teenager now, said she remembers wanting to learn how to swim and not being able to get into the swimming program. “I felt bad because I would see other kids able to get in,” she said.
Both Negrete and her daughter said the children they saw outside didn’t appear like they were from the area. “In reality, the programs here are not only for the people who live here, rather they are for those who come from outside areas. I see how they are giving preference to white people because they speak the language, because they are from here, and well, we are last.”
“This is not for me,” Negrete said. “Even if the services are in my neighborhood, I feel that it isn’t for us. Because you can’t speak the language, you can’t defend yourself, you can’t say how you feel.”
Negrete also remembers when Maritza was ten, they’d show up in person to the McKinley Park Field House to inquire about programs and her daughter would attempt to translate for her because no one spoke Spanish. It was not easy.
Five of the most commonly spoken languages in Chicago after the English language are Spanish, Polish, Arabic, Tagalog, and Chinese yet the Park District Summer 2022 Programs page on the website is only available in English. Some parts can be translated into Spanish and French through the website’s translation button at the top right corner. But even so, not everything is translated on the programs page. Only headers are translated and important COVID-19 information is only available in English.
The Park District’s reliance on online registration and information also comes into conflict with fundamental disparities in internet access and connectivity throughout Chicago. According to The Internet Equity Initiative, nearly forty percent of certain South and West Side neighborhoods don’t have reliable internet, putting these communities at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing parks and other community services. Burnside, West Englewood, Fuller Park, Englewood, and West Garfield Park are at the bottom of the list.
Negrete said she met other parents with similar problems when Maritza was a student at the local elementary school, Nathanael Greene Elementary. “A lot of parents were not able to [register their children] and the majority worked and wanted to have their children in a program,” she said.
While Negrete’s main obstacles are that she doesn’t speak or read English and that she doesn’t use a computer, parents who do speak English and do use a computer also find the registration process difficult.
Fiona Cook, also a resident of McKinley Park with two school-aged children, said she found out about in-person registration by calling the fieldhouse after all the spots were gone online. “[The website] said there were sixty spots available online, out of eighty total spots, leaving twenty for in-person,” she said.
Cook said she prepared for online registration by setting her alarm for 8:55am and watching the counter in the website tick down. “Once it was live, I clicked ‘enroll’ immediately. I was sent to a virtual waiting room for about two minutes. Then it said ‘sorry, all online spots have been filled.’”
Since all slots had been filled online, Cook decided that she’d try to register her children in person a week later on May 14. Doors opened at 9am, but she got there early because only twenty spots would be available and because there might be a long line.
“Parents brought chairs and everything,” she said. She said one parent even slept in his car. “And talking to a dad I recognized from last year, he said he got there at 4:30am. I laughed, thinking he was joking, and thinking what a surreal experience…what intense effort we had to put in just to get our kids into summer camp.”
A staff member opened the doors around 9am. In a loud voice, they told the line that there were only twelve spots left and not twenty. When parents inquired about the change, the staff member directed them to email the field supervisor, Briana Soria. Some spoke amongst themselves stating that the process was disorganized, and speculated whether the slots were given to friends.
When the Weekly reached out to Soria to inquire about the change in slot availability and about how the park prepares for registration, Soria replied that in-person registration would no longer be available due to “certain situations.” When pressed for more details, Soria directed the remaining questions to the communications department.
The director of communications, Michele Lemons, did not respond to comments after several attempts.
Hours went by in line. Cook was able to get two spots for her children. “As the line got longer, I started to feel really bad,” she said. “What will they all do? There needs to be more openings.” Those who lingered at the end until almost noon were told by a staff member they could get on a waitlist, but had to continue waiting in line to do that.
When Cook learned that, according to Soria, in-person registration would no longer be available at the park, she said, “I do think there needs to continue to be in-person registration in addition to online for people who can’t navigate the park website.“ Additionally she said the park website needs to be in more languages to reflect the diversity of the city.
But the long lines, the confusion, and messy process isn’t new. Philip Cantor, a Chicago Public Schools teacher remembers the long lines at the fieldhouse in Millenium Park from twelve years ago. He said he and his children would often arrive at 6am.
“It was a lot of hoops to jump through. There were definitely people there before us. The lines were quite long, probably over 100 families. I don’t know if anybody spent the night there but people definitely had blankets and folding chairs and things like that.”
Cantor, who is a resident of Logan Square, said that unlike others, he was lucky to have the time and the resources to navigate the process. And like other parents the Weekly spoke to, he said the way to improve would be to have more spots for more kids. “Any system where there is way more demand than there is supply will cause some kind of rationing. Since the costs are relatively low, it is rationed through waiting in line, or now being the first one to log in to the system. If there were more spaces people wouldn’t have to rush to be the first in line or online.”
Cantor said he and his family eventually switched to a private day camp for his children.
But many South and West Side families can’t afford a private day camp or expensive swimming classes. When Negrete’s daughters couldn’t find programming at the park, they’d stay busy by going to keep cool at a small concrete splash pad in Kucinski Murphy Park on 33rd St. and Ashland Ave. or waiting in line to get into the public pool at McKinley Park—sometimes up to three times a day.
A Pilsen resident who preferred to remain unnamed said that when she visited several park districts to enroll her toddler into programs, such as Harrison Park, she would get unclear information about the availability of slots. And when she tried online registration, she said “the process is…very cumbersome. It is not as user responsive as other systems I’ve used for private/non Park District classes.”
Like Cook, she said she sat in front of the computer for online registration at the minute mark. “When I click to register a lot of the classes would say ‘full’ almost immediately. It just goes to show that there is a high need for affordable development/extracurricular options for families and their children.”
The difficulty in enrolling kids in the programs is especially troubling given the recent curfew restrictions, following an incident at Millennium Park last month in which a seventeen-year-old fatally shot a sixteen-year-old. It prompted Mayor Lori Lightfoot to enforce a 10pm curfew downtown for unaccompanied youth and a 6pm curfew at Millennium Park. Community groups spoke out against the curfew, stating that they want the city to look at programs to stop the shootings rather than strict curfews and more policing.
The mayor had stern words for parents following the incident too: “I want our kids to enjoy safe spaces all over this city. I want us to continue to work to create those safe spaces all over our city. But it starts in the home. And it starts with the responsibility of the parents, the guardians and the caring adults.” She also told young people and parents to download an app—My Chi My Future—to find “hundreds” of opportunities.
Negrete thinks part of the reason why many young people go downtown in the summer is because there isn’t much to do in their own neighborhoods. “There’s nothing in the neighborhood,” she said. “Look, everything is a chain reaction. For parents who work so hard there are not many resources to put their children in care. And if there are, they put up a lot of obstacles.
“Then they blame the parents.”
Alma Campos is the Weekly’s immigration editor. She last wrote about ICE targeting Illinois families despite not being priorities for deportation.