Parks Foundation looks to expand access to programs

'America to Me' spurred primary focus on equity for the charity

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By Igor Studenkov

Contributing Reporter

The recently aired "America to Me" documentary raised questions about just how equitable Oak Park and River Forest High School – and, by extension, the Oak Park as a whole – really is. This has led to a lot of discussion and soul searching. 

For the Parks Foundation of Oak Park, it was a call to action.

For the past few months, the foundation has been raising money for the Park District of Oak Park's scholarship program, which helps cover the cost of the program fees for residents who would otherwise not be able to afford them.  

The foundation already has raised $7,000, and it's hoping to raise $25,000 more by the end of 2019. As part of that effort they will be holding a karaoke night fundraiser on Saturday, Feb. 23, at 7:30 p.m. at Oak Park School of Rock, 219 Lake St. Tickets are $40 in advance and $50 at the door.

According to the guidelines posted on the Park District of Oak Park's website, scholarships are available to Oak Park residents of any age who meet certain income requirements. 

The scholarships are broken down into three tiers, with Tier 1 roughly corresponding to the income levels needed in order to qualify for free lunch and Tier 2 roughly corresponding income level to qualify for reduced lunch. 

For example, for a three-person household, the maximum Tier 1 income is $27,014, the maximum Tier 2 income is $38,443. 

Scholarships can be used for all program fees and passes, but not equipment purchases and rental fees. In all cases, residents have to pay some portion of the costs out of their own pockets, but the amount depends on the tier. 

Tier 1 recipients get 75 percent of the costs covered, while Tier 2 recipients get 55 percent of the costs covered. Tier 3 recipients get 35 percent of the costs covered. Either way, each recipient gets up to $300 a year. 

The money for the scholarship program typically comes from non-resident fees. Parks Foundation President Jake Worley-Hood said that the problem with that method is that it only nets so much money.

"This source of revenue is limited and is not enough to reach everyone who needs it in our community," he said. "The fund has been exhausted each of the years since its inception."

"America to Me," Worley-Hood said, got the organization thinking about the importance of access to opportunities the park district offers. 

"Several months ago, and in the wake of 'America to Me,' the Parks Foundation decided to focus solely on equity in our community," he said. "The park district has spectacular offerings for our community, but their efforts to keep the tax burden low sometimes leaves program offerings costing a bit more than we might like."

 Worley-Hood said that this current fundraising effort isn't a one-time thing. The Parks Foundation, he said, is committed to not only to continued fundraising, but to look for grants and support from private foundations to help foot the bill, so that the $32,000 they hope to raise would only be "a tip of the iceberg."

"The Parks Foundation has committed to the long-term goal, without increasing the burden on taxpayers, of insuring that cost is not an obstacle for anybody seeking programming through the park district," Worley-Hood said. 

For more information about Park Foundation's fundraising, visit parksfoundationop.org/scholarship-fund.

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