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Bring Back Our Boats

At Leone Beach, the Park District not only took away a popular program--it took away property that belonged to private citizens.



For more than 80 years kids have been learning to sail, paddle, and water-ski at the Park District's junior lifeguard summer camp at Leone Beach in Rogers Park. This past spring the Park District quietly decided to dump the boating part of the program, then stashed the kayaks, canoes, skis, boats, and other equipment in a south-side warehouse.

But the equipment didn't belong to the Park District. It belonged to the volunteers who helped run the summer camp, and they want it back. Actually they want more than the equipment back. "We want our old camp back," says Chris Serb, a member of the Leone Beach Advisory Council, a volunteer group that works with the Park District.

The junior lifeguard program was started in 1925 by Sam Leone, the Park District employee for whom the beach (which is off Touhy east of Sheridan Road) is named. He believed that all Chicago kids, including poor ones, should have access to lakefront activities, and he persuaded the Park District to offer them sailing, boating, water-skiing, and even scuba diving lessons in addition to lifeguard training. Leone died in 1965, but the day camp continued, thanks to volunteers like the 34-year-old Serb, who went there while growing up in Rogers Park and used the skills he learned to get a job as a Park District lifeguard. "There were hundreds of kids like me," he says. "Without Leone Park we would never know how to be lifeguards or sail."

Serb, now a city firefighter and a freelance writer, says the camp was a perfect example of a private-public partnership. The Park District paid for the counselors and lifeguards who supervised the kids, and the Leone Beach Parents Association provided the equipment. The camp, open to kids ages 5 to 15, ran from 9 AM to 3 PM from June into August, and it cost $100, though kids who couldn't afford to pay were allowed in free. The money went to the parents association, a nonprofit that used it to buy equipment and T-shirts and pay for field trips, competitions, and other activities. "There was no need to change the camp--it wasn't broken," says Patrick Colleran, president of the advisory council.

But the Park District is hard up for cash. It wasn't getting any money from the camp, yet it had to pay the salaries of the counselors.

Last winter the Park District decided to change the camp. It raised the eligible age to eight and hiked the fees to $150 for the half-day sessions and $300 for the full-day ones. It also cut out the parents association, so that parents who send their children to the camp now make their checks out to the Park District. And it got rid of the boating programs.

Since there would be no more boating, there would be no need for boats. In early May Park District staffers cleared all the equipment out of the storage shed at Leone Beach.

Members of the advisory council and the parents association say no one told them anything. "We had heard rumblings through friends of ours in the Park District that they were going to change the program, but no one came out and told us what they were going to do or when they were going to do it," says Colleran. "Then in April or May I got a call from someone who told me, 'You won't believe this--your equipment is gone.'"

It wasn't just a few odds and ends. They'd had a 19-foot motorboat, eight canoes, three kayaks, and several sailboats, as well as sailboards, life boards, life preservers, wet suits, and dozens of inner tubes. "We started calling around the Park District--'Where's our equipment?'" says Colleran. "We never got a straight answer."

When camp began in mid-June enrollment was way down. "Last year we had 450," says Serb. "This year we have 80. People don't like it. It's not the old camp. You can't just do lifesaving all day. What made the camp great is that they also did the fun stuff that really teaches kids about using the lake."

On June 13 the alderman, the 49th Ward's Joe Moore, arranged a meeting between Serb, Colleran, and several Park District officials. According to Serb and Colleran, the officials said city lawyers had ordered them to remove the equipment. "They said they had been alerted by the law department that there was windsurfing and boating in the camp," says Serb, "and that was unapproved, unsuitable activity." That struck Serb and Colleran as odd. How could boats be unsuitable for a lakefront camp?

"They told us that our equipment was unsafe," says Colleran. "It's not unsafe--it's in good shape. They told us that it had to be certified--all of it, even the inner tubes. Do you know anybody that certifies inner tubes? I'm still scratching my head over that one."

Serb says no one has ever been seriously hurt at the camp and no one has ever sued. But as the officials pointed out to him at the meeting, just because it hasn't happened doesn't mean it won't. They said they couldn't afford to take the chance.

The officials did tell them their equipment was at a Park District facility at 62nd and LaSalle. "They said they'd get it to us as soon as they could," says Serb. "That was what, over a month ago? I'd like to know, how long does it take to get equipment out of storage?"

Jessica Maxey-Faulkner, a Park District spokesman, confirms that the law department ordered the boats removed until they were certified as safe, but she says the assumption that the boats belonged to the Park District was simply an "honest mistake. The equipment was in a storage room. The storage room was cleaned out. The person clearing it out assumed it was Park District equipment."

She also says the Park District has nothing against the junior lifeguard program at Leone Beach. "We're offering junior lifeguard programs at other beaches in the city," she says. "We like this program." If anything, she says, the program will be better because it will concentrate on lifeguard training: "You could say we're expanding it."

"Only at the Park District can they call a cut an expansion," says Colleran. "They had 450 kids there last year, and now they have about 80. If their goal is to get people out of the parks, they achieved it."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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