By Terry Dean
Japan is about as far as an American teenager who's never been out of the country can go.
It was the first time in the Far East country for Nicole Loud, a senior at Oak Park and River Forest High School. She visited Japan last summer as part of the OPRF Alumni Association's summer enrichment program. For the last 11 years, the program has sent more than 400 OPRF students overseas and across the United States, kids who typically don't get such experiences. These trips are educational as much as fun. The students learn about the places they visit and specific fields of study, like science, conservation and biology.
They also learn as much as they can about the language, culture and people.
Loud, 17, stayed with a Japanese family. Her host family was great, she recalled. The parents she stayed with insisted that she call them 'mama' and 'papa,' since Loud had trouble pronouncing their names. The teen has been in OPRF's Japanese program since her freshman year and knows some of the language. Still, there was a little language barrier with her host family. Her papa liked to tell her jokes, even if she didn't always understand them.
"He was absolutely hilarious. He was determined to tell me jokes. They were lame jokes too, according to the rest of the family who would groan whenever he told one, and Mama would try to hit him with something," Loud recalled. "My host family was half of the reason that the experience was so amazing. They were incredible and from the first awkward moments of stepping into their house they welcomed me as one of their own."
During this school year, Loud and her family hosted exchange students from Japan, including her 'sister' whom she stayed with while in Japan.
Irina Gavrilova, an 18-year-old OPRF senior, has been on two summer enrichment trips. Gavrilova is also a native of Russia, having moved to Oak Park during her sophomore year. She first visited Palmyra, Va., to study counseling at an international summer camp.
"A counselor-in-training's duties at the camp were very similar to those of actual counselors and involved lots of interactions with kids," Gavrilova said. "I helped teach various activities including drama, volleyball, arts and crafts and many others. I worked primarily with two age groups. I also got trained as a lifeguard and spent about two weeks life-guarding at the camp's pool."
The length of the enrichment trips varies, from a few weeks to nearly a month, like Gavrilova's trip, to most of the summer.
Last fall, the Alumni Association launched a $500,000 challenge grant with the help of an anonymous donor and longtime supporter of the enrichment program. The donor, who's an OPRF alum, is offering $200,000 in matching funds for every dollar raised toward the grant. The three-year challenge started in June of last year.
The summer enrichment program began in small in 2003 with just five students receiving grants, says Bobbie Raymond, the Alumni Association's president.
The money for the trips comes from such funders as the Oak Park Community Foundation and Oak Park Rotary.
About 30 kids normally receive grants, but this year the numbers are down. About 20 students have applied for this summer. Raymond says fewer students than normal applied this year possibly due to the fewer trips taking place than last summer.
Raymond's particularly disappointed in the small number of African-American male students applying this year, a group the association steadily tries to reach. Raymond, an OPRF alum, says the summer enrichment program is really for those kids who don't normally have such experiences. Those kids tend to be low-income and not necessarily the highest academic achievers.
The association, Raymond says, relies on teachers, counselors and other adults in the building to help spread the word about the program.
"We're a small group so we depend on the high school staff to do the outreach. They know these kids. They see them everyday and work with them.
"I thought we'd have more students this year than last year, because we did a lot of outreach this year, but we can't do it alone. Everyone has to get involved."
The outreach also extends to parents, Raymond said.
"For parents of African-American and Latino students, to let them go out of the country is a difficult thing. Sometimes they're not sure what's going to happen to them. But we have adults working with these kids. The students start learning about the place they're going in class, and they have adult mentors that they work with where they stay. These are study lessons."
Over the years, students have traveled to Africa, China and France, as well as other states in America. They receive grants to cover their trip.
Loud said her trip to Japan remains "burned" in her memory.
"There was so much that I did there that is so far removed from what we do here that it's hard to believe that it happened. It was a dream I never wanted to end."