As a freshman, Oak Lawn’s Alex Haizel played in the No. 2 singles position on the men’s tennis team at the University of St. Francis. He also was a part of the No. 1 doubles team for the Saints.
When he quits playing, he hopes to start coaching.
Haizel is charting a career course that could lead him to becoming a high school tennis coach one day. He is gaining on the job training this summer as a counselor in the Oak Lawn Park District Sports Camp.
He is an ordinary young man doing extraordinary work in a bid to pay back a debt in his hometown.
Haizel, age 18, spent four years attending the Oak Lawn Sports Camp himself as a boy. He said he learned a number of core values that he still puts to use in his every day life, including how to communicate and work together in a group setting, how to grasp the ideal of sportsmanship and how to master leadership skills.
Now, he is making like a coach in training, passing on his knowledge to the next generation of sports campers during regular sessions from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday at the Oak Lawn Community Pavilion. It’s all part of the job of being a camp counselor.
“I love this job because I’m always on my feet, and it allows me to stay in shape,” Haizel said. “It’s way better than a desk job. It keeps me active and out there with the kids. I enjoy playing all the sports with them. I look forward to it every day. It’s a bonus getting paid to do this.”
Haizel, who attended Marist High School and was a four-year IHSA boys state tennis tournament qualifier before enrolling at USF, isn’t getting rich. He makes minimum wage. He is getting an education in child care.
“You have to speak up,” he said. “You can’t be a pushover or they’ll walk all over you. You want to have fun and play with them, but at the same time you have to make sure they respect you and listen to you.”
200 Happy Park District Campers
The Oak Lawn Park District Sports Camp serves nearly 200 youngsters ranging from 8 to 14 years old. Children participate in 40-50 different activities during the course of two four-week sessions, the list running the gamut from archery to racket sports, ultimate Frisbee to Kin-Ball, which is a team game played with a giant rubber ball that traces its roots north of the border to Canada.
The camp has doubled in size since Chris Hall took over as director in 2003. Why? It is both affordable and unique. The cost to send a child is less than $100 a week ($650 base price/$750 with add-on field trips).
“We do lot of things other camps don’t do,” Hall said. “And our numbers speak to that. We do an all-night lock-in. The kids come at 9 p.m. and we have a DJ and games. They’re here over night. The parents like it because they get a night out away from their kids.”
And, then, there is the big grand finale.
“The last week of camp is the most exciting,” Hall said. “We do an Olympic week. We pick teams and have the kids represent different countries. We hang flags and the kids compete for gold, sliver and bronze medals. The kids get into it. It’s a competitive week. Our goal is to see every team win at least one or two medals.”
Haizel has won his share of medals playing tennis over the years. His father, Tony, supplied him with his first racket when he was 3 years old. The two have been training together ever since—at least when time allows. Tony is a chemist with the water reclamation district in Stickney.
Haizel’s mom works as a gym teacher at Harnew Elementary School in Oak Lawn.
“Her work is similar to what I’m doing now,” Haizel said.
He has plans to study business at USF, though, not education. He gets tutored on the ways of the world by his Saints doubles partner, Mark Zubov, who is of Russian descent.
“He’s all right at speaking English,” Haizel said. “But he can be hard to understand at times. He’s a nice guy. He loves the fact he got to come over here and go to school.
“When we’re playing tennis, he’s always complaining about the wind. He says it’s not windy in Russia. I remind him, ‘This is Chicago. It’s the Windy City.’ He says it’s cold over there in Russia. The hot days here get to him.”
When it’s hot at summer camp, Haizel makes it a point to swim with the children after lunch. He is one of two counselors on staff now who attended the Oak Lawn Park District’s Sports Camp as a youngster.
Eric Ladwig, 20, a junior at the University of Illinois, also grew up playing games in the park district program. He is studying geography and hopes to work in a government capacity doing research and analysis of data. He is a life-long resident of Oak Lawn and played baseball at Richards High School.
“It is a job,” Ladwig said. “It’s something I needed being a college student. But I’ve been a part of this camp and a part of this community all my life. So, it feels like I’m giving back, almost like a duty. It’s the least I can do. All the years I had in the camp provided great experiences for me. It opened me up to new people and new friends.
“My sister (Cari Ladwig) used to be a counselor. So, it’s in our family. We’ve always enjoyed recreational sports. I think the idea is to teach the kids to be active and to learn sportsmanship. It’s something they’ll need not only in athletics but all types of human situations. When you see kids who don’t participate or don’t have team-building skills, you’re not surprised if problems occur.”