Participants in Quinn Community Center’s fourth-annual summer camp during a feast, held July 24, in the St. Eulalia parking lot to mark the camp’s end. Michael Romain.
On an evening in June 24, several hundred people gathered in the parking lot of St. Eulalia Parish, 1851 S. 9th Avenue, for an extravagant feast marking the end of what amounts to the very concrete extension of the nearly 90-year-old church’s mission. The parish’s community outreach arm, Quinn Community Center, was marking the end of its five-week summer camp.
Emily Obringer, a former Loyola University medical student who was present at the creation of the summer camp four years ago, spent the evening marveling at its growth.
What began as a small group of teenagers volunteering to mentor some neighborhood kids over a few hours a day during the summer has evolved into a five-week, full-day camp servicing more than 130 kindergarten through 8th grade students virtually free of charge. With funding from Loyola and other sponsor organizations, the camp was also able to hire 35 teenagers to work as mentors.
The participants get to indulge in the arts, physical activities and receive tutoring from Golden Apple scholars. Obringer said various community organizations and individuals offer time and resources to instruct students in different disciplines. For instance, medical student’s with Loyola’s Aspire program facilitated science activities for students and Rachel Weaver Rivera, a local artist who founded her own studio in the Chicago area, offered art lessons.
“That first summer, we did maybe a couple of weeks and a couple of hours a day,” Obringer recalled. “We had about nine teens and about 30 neighborhood kids. The teens were just volunteering at that point. They wanted to do something for their community.”
Rah ‘quell Watson, 13, was one of those kids the teens mentored four years ago. Now, she’s what’s called a junior mentor. She spent the camp working with kindergarten through 3rd grade children — present versions of herself not too long ago.
“I can’t even remember when I was in the camp at that age,” Watson said.
She said she now feels much more acutely the burden of responsibility that comes with caring for younger children, even within the relatively limited settings of a summer camp.
“This gave me more patience,” she said of her camp experience. “The kids really look up to what you do and they’ll copy anything you do.”
One of the high points of the camp for Sydney Idunate, 13, were the watermelon fights she had with some of the teen mentors. This year marked Idunate’s second year participating and likely not her last. When asked whether she’d be back, she didn’t hesitate for a response.
“Yes,” she said immediately.
“I like the people here and it’s fun,” said Amari Esper, 12, of Bellwood. Esper, who runs track and plays basketball, said the tutoring she received from the volunteer Golden Apple scholars who came in and helped campers with their academics will have a lasting impact on her.
“They came and tutored us, but I was having fun at the same time that I was learning,” she said.
Manuel Barnal, the camp’s coordinator and a medical student at Loyola, said the camp is the picture of a holistic approach to health. The medical student, who noted this was his first year working with children and running a camp, said the experience has had a lasting effect on his career aspirations.
“People ask me how this camp is health-related and how it is reflective of my medical career,” he said. “I believe that access to education and disparities in education directly relates to health disparities. We hired 35 team mentors, high schoolers, who otherwise would’ve been out on the street and getting into trouble. To me, that’s health. They were busy here. They were involved in an active learning process, instead of sitting at home in front of a TV. That’s health to me.”
Gabriel Lara, Quinn’s executive director, said the holistic approach to health and community laid out by Barnal is at the center of a philosophy shared by Quinn Center and Loyola University. He said the congruent missions are what has made for such an effective partnership.
“When the program started, it was the idea of the church to be in the community and we looked at who in the community also has that responsibility. We feel that, since we’re in the community, we have to help and Loyola has that same idea,” Lara said.
Tom Fuechtmann, a retired community relations professional for Loyola and DePaul, and who sits on Quinn’s board, said Quinn’s anchor has been Lara himself.
“Quinn is about five years old. It’s a new program for the parish, but it has grown remarkably because we have a remarkable director,” Fuechtmann said. “He really is one of the more talented community organizers I’ve seen and I’ve worked with some of the best in Chicago.”
Fuechtmann said Quinn’s mission to reach out to the community comes from “the faith commitment of the parish, which sees itself as building community within the parish and being a catalyst for community.”
“There is a definite need for programs like this in communities everywhere,” said Bernal, a native of Mexico who was raised in Memphis, Tennessee before coming to Maywood for medical school. “That’s why I went to Loyola — because I was so in tune with their idea of serving communities.” VFP