WAUKEGAN – From her office window, Claudia Freeman can look out at Bowen Park in Waukegan and still imagine where she used to line up for the morning pledge during the warm summer days of her youth when she was a day camp counselor.
She loved working with the children, organizing activities, leading crafts and art projects, and playing sports.
Then in college, she realized she could help others see the joy in parks and the environment through her own passion for the elements. Since that moment, she has enjoyed a more than 40-year career bringing together arts, parks and people.
A native of Waukegan, Freeman grew up enjoying the parks, arts and beauty of the city. She remembers as a little girl, sitting to watch her friend’s mother portray the Evil Witch in Waukegan Community Players' production of Snow White more than 50 years ago.
“That’s when my love for theater happened,” Freeman said. “That was the day that shaped my life.”
Freeman enjoyed growing up where art, music and culture were woven into the fabric of the community. She worked as a recreation supervisor in the Gurnee Park District for 20 years before joining the Waukegan Park District in its cultural arts department.
“I jumped at the chance to come back and work in my community,” Freeman said.
Greg Petry, executive director of the Waukegan Park District, said Waukegan is one of the few park districts around the country with a dedicated department to the cultural arts.
“We really believe in and value the cultural arts and want to offer it to individuals and families in the community,” Petry said.
In his 15 years of working with Freeman, he has seen her dedication and creativity, as she develops programs and collaborates with other community groups.
“She grew up in the community. She’s committed to making Waukegan and the park district a great place to work and play,” Petry said of Freeman.
Freeman and her staff created programs such as Summer Arts in the Parks and Summer H.E.A.T. They continually bring new and fresh ways for residents to learn, enjoy the arts while building a sense of the community. Freeman's work often brings together volunteers and members of other Waukegan organizations, including collaboration from the Waukegan Historical Society and the Waukegan Public Library.
The program Arts Park began with park staff visiting six different parks to bring children an art or craft activity as a way to encourage residents to visit their local parks. The interest grew and this summer, Freeman said the park staff has more than 60 Arts Park events on the calendar. Next year, in honor of the park district’s 100th anniversary she and the staff have set the goal to have 100 Arts Park events
“The programs keep growing and are very popular,” Freeman said.
She’s collaborating on final touches for this year’s Dandelion Wine Festival set for June 4 and is proud of the festival’s ability to bring the community together for art, music and food, while celebrating author Ray Bradbury.
“It’s very family orientated and it’s just a nice day,” Freeman said.
Freeman contributes to the community through her time and service with other local institutions. She is a board member for the Waukegan Public Library, involved in the Waukegan Harbor Citizen Advisory Group and a member of the Waukegan Arts Council executive board.
“Arts don’t just happen in a school or down in a gallery. The arts are constantly going on,” Freeman said.
As superintendent of cultural arts for the park district, Freeman is a liaison to the Waukegan Historical Society, though she readily admits she would enjoy working with the society even if her job didn’t require it. She enjoys the historical walking tours through the community and for countless years she has participated in the Oakwood Cemetery Walk.
Freeman has witnessed changes and helped launch new programs and initiatives, and with each season she is excited for the new, the return of the traditions and the connections she’ll make in the community.
But there’s no doubt, in the heat of the summer as she looks out her window, she will still remember her days in day camp and the sights and smells of summer in the park.