It was nearly 40 years ago that Don Baker realized what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. It was the late 1960s, and a young Mr. Baker was studying to be a United Methodist minister at Garrett Seminary. He began working with youth groups at several Methodist churches in Evanston and quickly discovered he was able to connect well with teens and pre-teens. But it was one 16-year-old boy in particular who made the strongest impression on Mr. Baker.
“His name was Wayne, and he was as angry as could be,” says Mr. Baker. “He had been terribly hurt by a number of things that had happened in his life.”
Mr. Baker remembers vividly one day sitting in his apartment on the corner of Custer and Madison, struggling to get through to Wayne. Finally, he looked directly at Wayne and said, “I think you treat me like this because you think I’m going to hurt you. I am not going to hurt you.
“He got real quiet,” says Mr. Baker. “Everything in his face softened, his voice changed and he looked up at me and said, ‘Everybody hurts me.’”
Mr. Baker says he knew in that moment what he was meant to do in this world.
“This was a wonderful person who had been hurt, but he could heal and I could be instrumental in helping him,” says Mr. Baker.
Not long afterward, Mr. Baker became the founding director of Youth Organizations Umbrella Inc. (Y.O.U.), a nonprofit youth development agency that has adapted to meet the always-changing and emerging needs of Evanston youth for over 35 years.
Building Positive Relationships
Today, Mr. Baker and a staff of 27 full- and part-time employees, five student interns and about 60 work-study students from local universities provide free services for more than 400 children a year.
Evanston’s racial and economic diversity, as well as its commitment to quality education and recreational programs, are what make the City such an excellent place to raise a family. Yet Evanston’s many resources are not within reach for much of its population. The young people Y.O.U.’s program serves are predominantly low-income and without access to more traditional after-school activities.
Y.O.U.’s year-round after-school program is located in five schools throughout Evanston: Oakton, Washington, Chute, Nichols and Evanston Township High School. Services include academic assistance, life-skills education, social-skills development, recreational and athletic activities, cultural and artistic activities, parental support, crisis intervention, mentoring, case management, and individual, group and family counseling.
The program is available to the students every afternoon for three hours during the school year and every day for six hours over the summer.
Each child who comes through the program is treated individually, as every child has different needs. Y.O.U.’s philosophy is based on the belief that all young people need a wide range of assets to have successful and fulfilling lives, but Mr. Baker notes the true core of the program is about relationships.
“Helping young people build positive relationships lies at the heart of all we do,” says Mr. Baker.
A critical component to the success of the program has been to continually ask the question, “Who is on the margins and how can they be reached?” says Mr. Baker.
“Every community does what they can for the mainstream kid,” he says. “They try to find what the best thing is for the common child, but every community also has kids who fall outside of the norm and get lost. They are always there, but they change.”
When the agency began in 1971, the program focused on “hippie kids.” Later it was gang members. For the past 20 years, the focus has been on immigrant families.
“About half the kids in our program come from Jamaica, Haiti, Belize and Mexico,” says Mr. Baker. “Evanston has also had an influx of African-American families from Chicago’s inner city. Y.O.U. actively reaches out to all these families.”
Mr. Baker says he knows that the margins will change again some day, and Y.O.U will change with it.
A Place to Heal
When Mr. Baker runs into a difficult day at the office, he likes to think about Wayne, who is still his friend after all these years. Now in his late 50s, Wayne is married, has a Ph.D. in cryogenics and made enough money in his career that he was able to retire early. He and his wife recently returned home from the Peace Corps.
“Wayne was not the only one, but he was the first one,” says Mr. Baker. “It’s when the light bulb goes on and they finally let their guard down and they decide they’re going to give us a chance. That is when the healing begins.”
To learn more about Y.O.U. and its programs go to www.youevanston.org or call 847-866-1200.