Literacy a key component of summer camp organized by Elk Grove students, staff

By Julia Dacy

Summer is often a great time to utilize community staples like park districts and public libraries. Unfortunately, for kids living at the Oasis Mobile Home Park in Des Plaines, these resources are hard to come by. Elk Grove High School teacher Ricky Castro, saw the gap in this community’s access to such resources as an opportunity for change. Last year, Castro started a weeklong summer camp at Oasis for kids ages five to 10. This year, the camp added an additional week in July. 
Approximately 96 percent of kids living at the Oasis Mobile Home Park live below the poverty line, and don’t have access to park districts or libraries without paying additional fees. Castro, who was named the 2017 Illinois Teacher of the Year, sees his camp as a step towards reducing the inequality between unincorporated and incorporated communities. 
The kids participated in a variety of traditional summer camp activities from sports to arts and crafts to water balloon fights. A heavy emphasis was also placed on developing reading skills. Funds provided by the District 214 Education Foundation helped advance this goal with the construction of a mobile library, filled with donated books in both English and Spanish. 
Each day’s activities focused on a specific ideal that Castro believes is essential to a democratic society. Themes included love of knowledge, virtue, self-control and perseverance. 
“They get the extra support they need in the summer, and, in addition to that, they learn to work together in terms of the principles that are found in sports and arts and crafts like self-identity...We’re working on both academic and social skills,” Castro said.
The Oasis camp not only provides a chance for young children to grow, but also serves as a leadership opportunity for high school students. Each year, volunteers from Elk Grove High School serve as mentors. Many of the student leaders are members of Castro’s Elk Grove service club, Estudiantes Unidos. Each leader must attend several training sessions and be approved by the high school’s deans in order to participate in the camp.
Elk Grove senior Jose Romero believes that the leaders gained just as much as campers from the experience. 
“I like helping the community. It helps us become more responsible, learn leadership and communication skills, and stay in touch with friends from school during the summer,” Romero said. 
Castro too sees the camp as giving student leaders a purpose during the summer months where they lack the structure and guidance of school. 
“[Student volunteers] gain a sense of leadership, but also identity. They are role models to their younger counterparts and the younger generation...They read to kids so they’re becoming teachers,” Castro said. “A lot of times, when you have a responsibility, you have a sense of purpose. Maybe that will be a substitute for negative activities during the summer.”
In the coming years, Castro hopes to continue to expand the Oasis camp and grow its resources. Eventually, he would like to establish a full park district and actual library for the community. For now, thanks to the District 214 Education Foundation and the support of Elk Grove staff and students, the camp provides a step in the right direction. 
Julia Dacy is an undergraduate at the University of Denver double majoring in Strategic Communication and Socio-Legal Studies. She interned in the District's Department of Community Engagement and Outreach during the summer of 2017.