When Yvette* and her family moved back to the Chicago area from California back in 2013, the transition left them financially strained. She works in arts administration; her husband’s an actor. Their work isn’t always consistent, making paying for summer camp and maintaining a household challenging at times.

“When we started looking at camps last summer, before I even knew about the BASE Camp scholarship opportunity, I was thinking $400 for a week, or $300 for a week, I don’t know how we’re going to make that work with two kids, ” said Yvette, who lives in Oak Park with her husband, a 12-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son.

Then she found out about the Oak Park Education Foundation’s (OPEF) BASE Camp and its scholarships available to families eligible for free/reduced lunch. Yvette had been seeking camps that were fun and educational, so it was a great fit for her family. Through the scholarship program, last year she was able to send her daughter to Urban Biker BASE Camp and her son to the Weather and LEGO Engineering BASE Camps. OPEF will provide 85 campers with scholarships to 230 sessions at BASE Camp this summer, a substantial increase from the 102 sessions provided to 51 campers last summer.

“Frankly, the expense of day camp can be limiting in terms of what we are able to do. We would likely have been able to send each child to one thing, but the benefit of the scholarship is that each of them has been able to attend more than one camp, ” said Yvette.

With help from a grant from the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation, OPEF is launching an ambitious 3-year expansion of its summer scholarship program to serve an increasing percentage of District 97 low-income families. The goal is challenging, but dedicated fundraising efforts are in motion. The Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry recently signed on to provide lunch and snacks to scholarship students.

Making hard choices about what to do with your kids over the summer is a struggle many parents deal with nationwide. Even more troubling is that summertime activity has been linked to success all year round. In a recent article featured in The Atlantic, “The Activity Gap” is directly correlated to the achievement gap and driven by social class, not by race or ethnicity. The article highlighted how “extracurricular activities help kids hone ‘soft skills’ and other abilities integral to successful careers and adult lives (such as ambition and curiosity), but they can also help boost academic performance.”

OPEF’s hands-on BASE Camp fits the profile of successful summer learning programs by making learning fun and grounding learning in the real world. Programs like Mechanics of Sports, Claymation, VEX Robotics, Urban Architecture, Comics Creator, Urban Biker, Sailing, Mural Project, Science Olympiad top the list of more than 40 offerings. Half- and full-day camps that normally cost from $115-$380 a session are reduced to $10 -$20 a session for scholarship campers. And for working parents who need full-day coverage, extended camp is offered at no cost for 1st-5th graders.

“We’re thrilled to be expanding our summer camp scholarship program to support Oak Park families in need. By giving kids fun summer learning experiences, we keep them engaged in school and community and help level the playing field when everyone returns to school in the fall,” said Deb Abrahamson, Executive Director of Oak Park Education Foundation.

Yvette’s kids will be attending BASE Camp again this year.

“I, of course, want my kids to have fun over the summer, but I also want them to have some experiences that would be learning tools for them. BASE Camp has been amazingly beneficial to us,” said Yvette.

Want to help send a child to BASE Camp? Here’s where you can donate.

*Name changed for confidentiality reasons.

— Shari Noland

Interesting PBS documentary on how summer camp can close the achievement gap.

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Reinventing Summer School to stop kids’ Learning Loss