We spend a lot of time in school, about 35 hours a week to be exact. However, we really have more hours outside of school than inside the school. It is what we do with those free hours that can truly define us as young people in our formative years. In this new series, “After Hours,” I will explore what students are doing after 3:00.
Dozens of high school students are running around playing soccer, kickball, throwing a football, or just relaxing in the shade enjoying the beautiful summer day. Sounds of laughter and joyous screams fill the air, smiles brighter than the summer sun overhead are seen all around. Sixteen year old teens are holding hands with seven year-old kids. All different ages, genders and skin colors flood the fields. But this particular field is not in a park, or a private backyard; it is not in the community of Lake Forest, or Lake Bluff or even Knollwood. No, this is even better. It is the lawn of the “big blue house” at the corner of South McAlister Rd. in Waukegan. A bright bold banner draped over the white picket fence clearly identifies this special corner as “Beacon Place,” a bright spot in a community that had been without hope.
Started in 2012 by a group of individuals from several North Shore communities that believed they could make a difference, Beacon Place provides programs for kids and families through a community center that was once an abandoned house. In just five short years, something that started as a dream has become a reality, and Beacon Place now holds a special place in the hearts of many LFHS students and is a staple in the Waukegan community.
One of the largest programs at Beacon Place, Summer Lunch Bunch, is a day camp where neighborhood kids come for a free lunch and then stay for sports, crafts, reading, games and more. Summer lunch is also where most LFHS teens begin to volunteer. In fact, according to Mrs. Wendy Feldhaus, who has coordinated the summer program the last two years, more than 100 LFHS students volunteer each year. Some LFHS seniors have actually been volunteering there since the summer before they entered high school and have watched kids and the programs grow over that timeframe. Senior Jake Danneker recalls, “I have gotten to know some of these kids really well over the last four years. It’s like I am seeing them grow up”. As a soccer star at LFHS, Jake is often a part of infamous pick up games that take place during the summer at Beacon Place with kids from 4-14 ready to take on Jake and his extraordinary talents.
For some students, volunteering often starts as a task they must do to receive service hours that are required for a club or group. But for many, the reason they return to Beacon Place is because of what they experience while they are there. For junior Clare Bradley, the real reason she volunteers at Beacon Place is because of the kids.
She has felt connected to this special place from her very first moments volunteering, “No matter what is happening in a kid’s life, whenever they come to Beacon Place they always come with a smile on their face and are ready to have fun and make the most out of every situation.”
Just like Jake, Clare is a consistent volunteer at the Summer Lunch program, and will often be found either in the field playing soccer and kickball, or at the crafts station, her favorite areas. More than 25 teen volunteers are needed each day and whether it is on the field, in the craft area, at the lego table, reading tent, or lying down playing a board game, once a volunteer develops a friendship with a child, that bond will surely grow over the rest of the summer. That is why so many volunteers end up coming up at least once a week–they want to spend time with their new young friends, and the kids, in turn, are just as anxious in calling out to their favorite volunteers as soon as they see them. If you ask Bradley, Danneker, or any other LFHS student who has volunteered at Beacon Place, they will be able to give you at least three names that they can remember from the previous summer that have had an impact on their lives. Entire LFHS athletic teams have come up to join the fun as well–the varsity dance team, boys basketball, soccer, and more have all found a way to give and connect.
While it may be the largest, Summer Lunch Bunch is not the only program that Beacon Place provides for the community. There are special activities like holiday parties, movie nights, family field trips, and programs for parents, like moms groups, yoga and ESL. In addition, kids come to Beacon Place throughout the year to get help to do better in school. Offered Monday through Thursday as well as on Saturday mornings all throughout the year, more than 100 kids come to Beacon Place to work on math, reading, and do hands on activities like art, science, gardening, and cooking. This is yet another opportunity for students from LFHS to volunteer at Beacon Place and many seize that opportunity. Teens can become peer tutors and help the kids improve their skills. One teen who has taken volunteering in the Tutoring Program to the next level is senior Ben Hans. Hans spends as much time as he can at Beacon Place and has worked with all different ages and grade levels while tutoring. As he has gotten to know many of the kids well, Ben sees their struggles with school work, but also their desire to work hard and improve.
“They have so much potential, they just need the right encouragement in order to succeed.”
Sometimes the best help that can be lent are the excited words of support from a teen who has watched one of the kids master a new skill. All volunteers readily agree that the kids at Beacon Place are very similar to kids of the same age in Lake Forest or Lake Bluff, they just do not have the same opportunities. That is why they feel compelled to help.
For students who volunteer at Beacon Place, it is not just about logging service hours. It is about connecting with kids and families in a neighborhood not far from our own; it’s about building relationships and lifelong friendships that make a difference.
The big blue house that sits on a corner in Waukegan has truly become a ‘beacon’ of hope for everyone: volunteers and kids alike. And with the help of a steady stream of future LFHS volunteers, Beacon Place will surely continue to shine brightly for years to come. Senior and regular volunteer Caroline Abboushi perhaps said it best. “The volunteers love going to Beacon Place just as much as the kids from the neighborhood. It’s an inspiring place.”