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Serena Hills School in Chicago Heights recently 
received a $25,000 donation from former 
student Allan DiCastro. 

(Photo by Tom Houlihan/HF Chronicle)

Four decades after graduating from Serena Hills School, Allan DiCastro remembers his years there as an important part of his life.

“Experiences in that school made me feel I could achieve what anyone else could,” DiCastro told the H-F Chronicle this week. “And then as I went out into the world that sense of worth stuck and grounded me so often.”

Allan DiCastro

Much has happened in DiCastro’s life since last attending Serena Hills in the early 1970s. After graduating from Homewood-Flossmoor High School and college, he worked for a while in the Chicago area and then moved to California, where he had a successful 20-year career in finance. He led an award-winning organization as a community activist in his Los Angeles neighborhood. Today, he is co-founder of a thriving, nationally recognized arts center and educational foundation.

But he never forgot his elementary school, and what it meant to him. Last December, in a gesture of thanks, he made a $25,000 donation to Flossmoor School District 161; it is to be used specifically for programs and students at Serena Hills.

In announcing the gift at the Jan. 11 school board meeting, Superintendent Craig Doster described how he learned about the donation.

DiCastro called the district office and said he wanted to make a donation to Serena Hills, Doster said.

“I told him about a program where students can get backpacks filled with supplies,” Doster said. “He said, ‘No, I’d like to do more than that.’ Then he told us how much he wanted to give. It was a shock. It was a total surprise.”

Of the five District 161 schools, Serena Hills, located in Chicago Heights, has the highest percentage of students at or below the poverty level. According to the Illinois School Report Card, 78 percent of the school’s students are classified as low-income.

“There’s such a need, and we are going to make sure this gift helps students at that school,” Doster told the Chronicle.

The Serena Hills building leadership team is designing a plan that will best utilize the donation, Doster said Thursday. Once they are finished, team members will provide a recommendation to Doster for approval.

DiCastro said this week that he remembers his years at Serena Hills – and growing up in Chicago Heights – as a simpler time that helped shape his view of the world.

“As a child, I remember playing in and sledding in the field at the corner of Holbrook Road and Chicago Road,” he said. “Ice skating at North End (now Commissioners) Park and on Butterfield Creek. We picked apples, pears and sometimes peaches from trees nearby. We biked to Olympia Plaza to buy penny candy at the Ben Franklin store.”

 He listed memories from Serena Hills:

Sitting on a classroom floor reading. Taking spelling exams. Watching a caterpillar turn into a butterfly, over the weeks, in a glass jar in the classroom. The art lady coming in to explain paintings to students. Watching a moon landing on a television in the lobby outside the principal’s office.

And DiCastro remembers the kindness of the Serena Hills teachers. He names some of them –  Mr. Mollin, Mrs. Beers, Mrs. Boston, Mrs. Wunderlich.

“I felt very ‘seen’ by them,” DiCastro said. “I don’t know if that makes sense … but I guess it was just that I felt acknowledged like everyone else. It wasn’t that they singled me out – it was that they treated us all the same. And I believe that was a seedling planted that served me well later in life as I became ‘ambitious.’”

Life was not always easy. His parents divorced when he was about 10 and his mother, working in a nursing job, “singlehandedly” raised DiCastro and his four siblings. His mother’s accomplishments were “pretty spectacular” and a continuing inspiration, he said.

DiCastro also got his first exposure to racial discrimination in his grade school years. His best friend was black and, one day, they went to the park to play catch. DiCastro went to get some equipment and, when he returned his friend said he’d had a brief fight with a boy who called him a racial slur. DiCastro and his friend left the park to avoid retaliation from the other group of boys.

“There were lots of bumps along the way in my life,” he said. “But so much of life is how you approach, compartmentalize or otherwise deal with what is thrown at you. Many trials I experienced actually brought great lessons to me. This is often the question: What is the lesson in this happening to me?”

In recent years, DiCastro has demonstrated the remarkable skill set that comes with having been both a bank vice president and a community organizer.

L.A. Weekly published a 2010 article on DiCastro’s “rules of engagement” for dealing with the city’s bureaucrats to fix potholes, remove graffiti and get other improvements in his urban neighborhood. At the time, he was president of the Mid-City Neighborhood Council (MINC), a local volunteer-run organization funded by the City of Los Angeles. During his presidency, MINC won the first Empower L.A. award from the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners for its outstanding achievements. His duties included direct community engagement, shepherding policy initiatives through various levels of government and leading community improvement projects.

In 2014 DiCastro founded Art + Practice Foundation with artist Mark Bradford and philanthropist and noted art collector Eileen Harris Norton. Located in DiCastro’s Leimert Park neighborhood, the organization has an art exhibition space, bookstore and also provides job counseling and mental health services to persons raised in foster homes. Art + Practice has been profiled in the Los Angeles Times and the New Yorker magazine.

Art + Practice started out as an idea to give back to the community, DiCastro said, As Bradford became more successful, he wanted to give back to the challenged areas of South L.A. As a result, one major component of Art + Practice was the idea of bringing a museum and museum-grade art into that section of the city.

“I, however, wanted to really do something for the community and the younger kids in particular,” DiCastro said.

The three principals decided to focus on the nation’s foster care epidemic in this nation, and specifically in South Los Angeles. That way, their organization would deliver both art and social services.

“We all believe in education and exposure to the world as being important to one’s development as a human being,” he said.

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