Staying Connected in Summer 2020

Although we initially thought that COVID-19 might be resolved in time for Summer Programs, it quickly became clear that the major shifts in programming would extend through the summer and beyond. Our wide range of summer programs adjusted to meet students’ needs as effectively and creatively as possible!

Summer Camp 

Recognizing that many students were already close to “zoom burnout” after the school year finished, UI staff worked to develop a summer camp model that would allow students to socialize and connect with coaches, but also included programmatic elements that took place independently away from the computer screen. Students would log in each morning to say hello to their peers and coaches, then receive a daily “mission” to complete on their own. For example, the mission might be to go on a nature walk, or find a show-and-tell item in your house. Students would log back in later in the day to debrief their mission. 

In addition to the video chats and missions, each student also got an equipment kit with supplies to use at home, which was generously donated by our partnership with the Chicago Cubs! The kits included sidewalk chalk, markers and construction paper, as well as a wiffle bat and ball, and (of course) a soccer ball!

Every year, the focus of UI Summer Camp is to maintain a space for kids to be connected to their friends and coaches when they’re not in school, and this summer was no different!

After School Matters

Since 2017, UI has partnered with After School Matters (ASM) to provide a paid internship opportunity for approximately 15 high school students from around the city.  Given the social restrictions with COVID, we quickly realized we would not be able to facilitate this internship as we have in the past.  After some discussion and planning, we had a new plan!  We decided ASM interns were going to lead small group, virtual engagement sessions with our middle school Take The Lead (TTL) captains.  This decision made sense for many reasons- it allowed for ASM student coaches to have more input in their internship experience, and it allowed for UI to stay better connected with TTL captains over the summer.  

Following training week, ASM interns led weekly small group engagement sessions for 4 weeks, building their relationship with TTL captains and skills as each week progressed. As the internship came to a close, ASM interns presented their experiences in a final “Summer Showcase.”  Showcases ranged in creativity from powerpoint presentations, to video journals, to intern to intern interviews, and more.  It was a great way to finish out their summer experience with UI!  Here are a few quotes from students on what they learned from their experience: 

  • “At first we tried one activity; unfortunately, the captains did not really respond to it, but then we tried a different approach and the captains had a lot of fun!” 
  • “I learned to be more of a leader, not just a coach.”
  • “Career paths are not always linear, and that is ok!” 

International Partnerships 

When we realized that our 2nd annual trip to France would no longer be possible, we fostered international connection through the virtual space. In partnership with Sport dans la Ville, our international delegates took turns leading photo tours of their home cities. Urban Initiatives delegates shared their favorite things about Chicago, from beautiful murals and delicious taco stands to prominent destinations like Buckingham Fountain and Soldier Field. French delegates took us to places we had planned to visit in person, like the Montmartre neighborhood in Paris and the Tour Eiffel!

After the meeting, delegates each mailed a postcard to a new friend across the ocean. Even though we can’t travel right now, a postcard still can!

Future Leaders Fellowship 

Like many other events in this season, the 2020 Future Leaders Fellowship took a turn and went virtual on August 10-12th. For three days, 15 high school students built connections and networks with professionals in the worlds of academia, trades, and cultural institutions. Although no one left their home, each student gained personal connections with other fellows and Urban Initiatives staff members through dynamic and creative programming! 

While the agenda was filled with elements from our external partners, the very unique Fellowship Group Project was the main event that cultivated an especially trusting and collaborative environment. The aim of the project was to take the time to notice the beauties of personal, individual culture, learn about aspects from other cultures, and create a space where those cultures can coexist. Every one of us has a distinct life experience that makes up the culture we inhabit. This project asked fellows to articulate that life story through the universal language of food. After 3 days filled with knowledge on post-secondary pathways, meaningful conversations, and amazing panels, our fellows presented their original and unique culture projects, virtually! 

Even though this year contained unique barriers, it also produced new possibilities. Hopefully, all 15 fellows left knowing that they have a wider professional and personal network spanning across all of Chicago !


Summer 2020 was a challenge in many ways, and we hope to never repeat that experience. In the case of Urban Initiatives programs, however, there is a clear silver lining. Our staff pushed themselves to develop new ways of connecting with the youth and families we serve, and re-grounded themselves in our purpose to use play as a tool for growth and healing. We are grateful for the staff, partners, and youth that helped fill this summer with play, learning, and fun despite the challenges! 

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