Chicago Heights’ newest park commissioner is attacking several major projects in his ward, and he's not even old enough to have a beer when he's done.
Twenty-year-old Fernando Desiderio can call himself the youngest Heights resident holding an elected position. He was appointed as second ward commissioner in August of 2011 and soon after matched words with actions by starting a non-profit after-school program at .
Desiderio, a Marine who came off active duty last year, founded the Second Ward Alliance for Community Advancement in October 2011. Since then, he and a team of his peers have maintained a daily routine with the children registered for the program.
“We help them with their homework,” Desiderio said. “Once they’re done with their homework, we teach them in a class or we have them do arts and crafts. After that, they go outside and play a sport.”
This goes on from 2:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. every weekday, with nearly 40 children in attendance on an average day. The Alliance has a total of 67 children registered for the program.
Where does the inspiration for such a program come from? Desiderio attributes it to growing up in the Heights and seeing young people in the second ward struggle, with just three of 10 Hispanic children graduating from high school. The young commissioner said he is troubled by the pessimistic attitude he sees among some of the kids.
“We have kids that, I ask them what they want to be when they grow up and they say, 'I don’t want to be anything,’" Desiderio recalled. "I want to change that.”
Desiderio said he is most proud of the team of young volunteers he has surrounded himself with at the Alliance.
“Our youngest is 15, our oldest is 22,” Desiderio said. “So it’s a group of high school and college students that started this. We hope to get more grants so that we can actually have staff. It’s wishful thinking but you never know how much you can grow.”
But how does a young guy from the south end of the Heights become a park district commissioner? It started with Ald. Sonia Perez, Desiderio’s predecessor, who saw something special in him after she stepped down from the position last spring.
“I think he’s going to be great for the ward,” Perez said. “He’s detail-oriented and motivated. He was always ready to volunteer. I encouraged him to apply for the position and I offered him my full support.”
Park District Supt. Frank Perez concurred, praising Desiderio’s motivated attitude and honest intentions.
“I knew his family that lived on the Hill (in the second ward), but didn’t know him personally,” Perez said. “I think he’s very energetic. He’s very involved with the community and he wants to make a difference.”
Where does all that energy and motivation come from? Desiderio gives credit to the late mayor of Chicago Heights, Alex Lopez, who passed away while in office during the summer of 2010.
“My one true hero is Alex Lopez,” Desiderio said. “Everyone in the community loved him. Everyone knew him. Everyone misses him. When he’s looking down on us, I want to make him proud.”
Nearly eight months into his new roll, Desiderio has no intentions of slowing down. His next step is for the Second Ward Alliance to be more than an after-school program, with several projects in the works, including a program for educating teen parents.
Aside from all his non-profit work, Desiderio is pushing to have converted into a dog park, which the Park District Board of Commissioners will vote on at the April 23 meeting.
He also has plans to start a youth soccer league and an employment workshop. The list goes on and on.
Maybe by the time Desiderio is done making all these changes, he'll be old enough to have a drink.
To learn more about the Second Ward Alliance for Community Advancement, visit their Website.