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Group helps immigrants’ kids gain from playing sports

Updated: September 3, 2012 7:50PM



Estefania Nieto made a bold move by joining the Palatine High School golf team.

It took some guts for the freshman because she had to sell her immigrant parents on the idea.

By and large, immigrants put tremendous value on hard work and academics. “That’s what mine say,” Estefania told me.

Sports can seem frivolous when a family is doing all it can to survive financially. Yet by their enthusiastic nature, kids want to do more than survive. They want to thrive. Sports and after-school activities are part of that.

Estefania realized this in elementary school when she joined ICompete, a program in Palatine that introduces sports and arts to minority children in first through eighth grades. It is run by the Palatine Park District, the Palatine Opportunity Center, Palatine High, School District 15 and a local YMCA.

“We try to break down barriers by providing opportunities maybe families can’t afford through traditional community programs,” said Cristina Lara, ICompete’s community outreach coordinator. “It took a while, but we are seeing more kids involved at the high school level.”

More and more, suburban high schools find participation dropping in school activities as struggling immigrant families increasingly settle outside the city. This is something not at all foreign to city schools that have dealt with dwindling numbers for decades.

Elgin High School barely had enough football players for its season opener. Athletics director Paul Pennington said the school is trying to communicate better with its widening Latino population to encourage participation.

“It’s a difficult process,” he said.

A grass-roots effort is needed, and that’s what Palatine has. The high school runs summer camps for ICompete, and seniors who must complete 20 hours of volunteer work as a graduation requirement usually exceed that number by pitching in, said Andrea Guthrie, a Palatine teacher and cross-country coach who oversees the high school’s involvement with ICompete.

ICompete participants receive transportation to camps and pay almost nothing. The high school asks ICompete kids to commit to attending four athletic events each season, and kids are paired with a high school senior to serve as a role model.

“We’re trying to show them the dedication and time it takes to be in sports,” Guthrie said.

Lara and her staff make the most of their shoestring budget. In addition to mainstream sports such as football, soccer and wrestling, children have a chance to play sports often associated with the wealthy: golf, tennis and lacrosse.

Lara said she wanted to cry when Estefania, the golfer, called her to say she was joining the high school team.

Estefania also said she had a problem. Her father didn’t want her to join. Lara, who seems to know all her participants well, met with Estefania’s parents to persuade them.

“They’re starting to come around,” Estefania said.

It is heartening to know a community is going the extra mile for these kids.

No such program existed for me in the 1980s. We were an immigrant family that barely got by. My older siblings had to work to help the family.

I joined cross country, basketball and track without telling my parents and forged their signatures on permission slips. By the time they realized I was a three-sport athlete, they found the burden on them was minimal and I was allowed to continue.

Sports did wonders for my self-esteem. Through athletics I learned that dedication could get me far in life.

But it shouldn’t be that tough to enjoy the high school experience.

Fortunately, for many kids in Palatine, it’s getting easier.



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