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RoundTable series: Reaching Out to Opportunity Youth and Young Adults. Evanston has many youth and young adults who lack high school or college degrees, lack jobs and job opportunities, or who need help in improving their life chances. Some have been drawn into the criminal justice system. A number of dedicated people and organizations here are working 24/7 to reach out to these youth and young adults and to enhance their opportunities and lives. Part 1 in this series looks at the work being done by the City’s Youth and Young Adult Division.
The City has more than 2,000 at-risk youth and young adults between the ages of 18 and 26, says Kevin Brown, who has overseen the City’s Youth and Young Adult Division for the past five years. Since his arrival, that Division has hired six outreach workers and has ramped up its efforts to reach out to at-risk youth and young adults, and to provide them services to meet their needs, often in partnership with other agencies and community organizations.
An important part of the outreach program is to stem violence in the community by connecting young adults with job opportunities and other supports and mediating disputes.
In the last four years, the Division has served 685 youth and young adults between the ages of 14 and 26, not counting those served in the summer jobs program. The vast majority, or 617 of the Division’s clients, were between the ages of 18 and 26.
While the focus has been the 18-26 age group, the Division has been reaching back to youth in their middle school years in an effort to change their trajectory. One key part of that effort is the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program, managed by Porschia Davis, assistant program coordinator. Last summer, 550 youth, ages 14-18, obtained summer jobs through the program, and 100 of those received year-round jobs.
That is a four-fold increase in four years, Mr. Brown told the RoundTable. “That’s going to change a whole generation of kids.”
The Target Group
“When we talk about at risk or opportunity youth, we’re talking about young people who are not performing well in school academically, or who are not being fed properly so they don’t have the right kind of nutrition, or who have lost interest in school and have a high absentee rate or have dropped out of school, or who are out of work, unemployed and who need something to do positively, or who don’t have mentors or come from an environment where they aren’t getting the kind of nurturing that they need to develop successfully, or who have been involved with the criminal justice system.
“Some youth go to school hungry, some face violence in their homes, some do not have homes. Some have post-traumatic stress,” said Mr. Brown.
Only nine of the young adults served have a college diploma and only 51 have attended some college, “so they are in need of additional training in order to be able to get a decent job, so that’s an educational need that all these people have,” Mr. Brown said. Virtually all of the young adults have had challenges in securing employment or keeping it.
The Division’s clients are not engaged in criminal activity, Mr. Brown said, but they are around it. “The percent who may be at risk of a gang life-style is at least 50% of the people we’re encountering. It could be a little higher.”
About 80 to 85% of the youth and young adults have experienced “real trauma” and show evidence of post-traumatic stress, he added. Many of the youth know people who have been killed or shot and live in neighborhoods where shootings have occurred and where shots are fired. Some are victims of violence, racism or sexism, or are victims of mistaken police stops. Some are stressed because of the lack of stable housing, poor nutrition, or the lack of mental health and health care services, he said.
Continuing research has found that trauma can impact a youth’s ability to concentrate in a classroom and to focus on learning, and have a profound impact on their lives.
Reaching Out and Building Trust
An important part of each outreach worker’s job is to identify potential clients through school and agency referrals and through street outreach – by visiting local hang-outs, community centers and recreation centers, said Mr. Brown.
If a youth decides to participate in the program, the outreach worker works with the youth to figure out what the youth’s needs are, and then develops a program to meet those needs. These services may be provided by another member of the outreach team or by partnering organizations, but the outreach worker who made the initial contact remains the point person and keeps in regular contact with the youth or young adult.
“Building trust with youth is very, very important and a very intrinsic part of our program and what we do on a daily basis,” said Nathan Norman, outreach worker supervisor.
“One of the ways we build trust is we go where the youth and young adults are. We don’t just wait for the clients to come to us. We go to the clients.
“We have strong ties to the community of Evanston which, I believe, strengthens our position in the community,” continued Mr. Norman. “They know us and we know them. We know their families. Many of us have experiences with some of the same challenges and difficulties that our clients face. So they know that we’re not speaking to them from a text book point of view, but we’re actually speaking from experience.
“One of the first things I ask an individual when I approach them is, ‘How is it that they think that we can help them?’ Because from the outside looking in I could think of ways in which I could possibly help them. But we have to have the people facing these issues and challenges tell us what are some of their needs, what are some of the ways we can help them, so they’re involved in that process,” said Mr. Norman.
Maurice Wilkerson, an outreach worker who specializes in workforce development and job placement, said, “This group [the outreach team] is all from Evanston, born and raised. We’ve seen high school students and middle school students as they’ve grown up. They’ve seen us as they grow up. … We’re here to really help our community. I’m in the same shoe store. I’m in the same grocery store. I’m shooting around the same gym. They don’t see us just 9 to 5, and we’re disappearing. After 5, I’m in the community.”
“We’ve been through some of these challenges that kids are going through so we understand where they’re coming from,” said Jermey McCray, an outreach worker and supervisor of the summer employment program. “We build a very close relationship with every kid we come across or every adult and that’s the key. You’ve got to figure out a way to be close with the client you’re working with and figure out their needs because they don’t want to tell you all the bad.”
Stacey Moragne, an outreach worker who specializes in expunging or sealing criminal records, said, “I work closely not only with the kids, but also the parents. … If the parents trust you, the kids trust you. It’s monumental to repair the head of the household. … I basically focus on building an honest relationship, giving it to them straight and building trust allows them to open up about intimate things.”
“We meet all our clients and participants where they’re at,” said Lachisa Barton, an outreach worker who oversees the after-school program at Mason Park. Sometimes you have to adjust the way of doing business for each individual client.” For kids, “We come to them at their own level, and we build relationships with them that last over time. We follow them through adulthood, so we’re not just leaving them after they get out of middle school and they go to high school.”
Addressing Needs Holistically
“The nature of street outreach work is to work in a holistic manner,” said Mr. Brown. “Typically clients have multiple and complex needs. … So a person may have five needs and may be homeless, they may have substance abuse, they may have a criminal history, they may have kids that need childcare support. So what the outreach worker does is look at the outreach workers as a team, and figures out what we can do to address those particular issues. I may be able to address three of those needs, but then I know that Maurice Wilkerson specializes in workforce development and job placement, so I can go to him and say, ‘Mr. Jones needs a job. What resources are going to be available?’”
“We also work with the parents of our clients to provide wrap-around supports,” said Mr. Norman. “We work with community partners like Y.O.U., which has outreach workers as well, so we connect with them to share information. We work with the Moran Center which is involved with juvenile justice. We work with the Youth Job Center, with whom we have a career pathways program for individuals who are 18-26 years old and who are looking for some sort of career.”
Each outreach worker manages approximately 40 youth or young adults, said Mr. Brown. Clients will usually stay on their rolls until the clients’ goals are reached. The more intense the need, the longer they stay on as active. Some may just need a job and housing and they are ready to move on. Others may require mental health services, and they could remain active longer.
Mr. Wilkerson described the team’s workforce development. He said they have developed relationships with more than 50 different employers, and placed more than 300 people with jobs.
The outreach team partners with many organizations to develop job opportunities. For example, the team partners with:
• Youth Job Center of Evanston to offer a 24-month job readiness training program. After completing a two-week training course, youth become interns in their choice of a field, including health care, culinary arts, security guard, automation, or pharmaceutical. Sixty-one youth have participated in the program, and 53 have obtained permanent employment.
• James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy to expunge or seal their clients’ criminal records. “The expungement part is giving them an opportunity to reinvent themselves and get an opportunity for employment,” said Mr. Moragne. More Than 190 clients have had their records sealed or partially sealed, and 27 have had their records expunged.
• Mr. David’s Flooring, which has been successful in the commercial flooring industry. After completing an internship program, young men begin an apprenticeship that can lead to becoming a unionized flooring installer in four years. The outreach team has referred eight or nine youth so far, and is getting ready to refer five more. The company plans to hire additional residents on an “as needed” basis, said Mr. Wilkerson.
• Northwestern University which has hired six young adults to participate in a one-year internship at NU, in which the young adults are taught skilled trade jobs, which will enable them to maintain the facilities at NU or elsewhere. After the internship, the interns may be hired on a full-time basis. NU has committed to hire six Evanston residents each year, said Mr. Wilkerson.
In addition, the team offers mental health support in partnership with the Family Institute of Northwestern University, the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, the Naomi Ruth Cohen Institute for Mental Health Education, and Evanston Township High School. The Division has a relationship with Safe Haven, where clients can receive treatment for drug addiction or alcohol abuse. It works with McGaw YMCA which reserves some units to provide housing for homeless clients. It sends clients to Oakton Community College for job training.
“One thing the outreach team does that I think is important for the community to know is we are aggressively engaged in a science of violence interruption,” said Mr. Brown. The outreach workers work with “a whole group of individuals who surround the hardcore people and who could be drawn into that life, and we work very hard to draw them away from that life.
“Our team has developed a reputation in the community where a number of individuals who may be tempted to engage in activities that they should not be engaged in are approaching our staff and asking them for a way out. We have not only in-town opportunities where we provide paid work experiences, we also have relationships in Chicago. We can send kids to job training experiences in six different states. We have ways for individuals to improve their lives if they are committed to change their lives,” Mr. Brown said.
“We also started a violence interruption group where we have gotten into the thick of gang violence in Evanston,” said Mr. McCray. He said the outreach team has met with people who are “playing with guns and fighting … We’ve had about four groups where we’ve sat down with these kids and kind of mended some problems that have been going on, problems that were going to carry over to someone being killed or someone being very hurt or someone having to bury a family member.”
“We build solid enough relationships with kids who would be considered in gangs or clichés that we are able to help mediate truces or mediate agreements between groups to help stem the tide of violence,” said Mr. Brown.
Mr. Norman added that they have at times invited parents to the sessions. “We thought it was important and very strategic to pull the parents in so that they will know what type of action the youth were really getting involved in. A lot of times, some of the parents are not aware what’s going on with their child.”
“I think this group has been so important to this community because we’ve kind of eased a lot of things that probably would have happened if the outreach team wasn’t around for it to happen,” said Mr. McCray.
After School in Mason Park
The Division is increasing its focus on middle and high school youth. Ms. Barton manages an after-school program for 14- and 15-year olds that was started this school year at Mason Park. The program operates from 3 to 6 p.m., 29 youth are enrolled, and some additional youth drop in. A summer program is being planned.
“Some of the issues that the youth are facing are things like having a sense of belonging,” said Ms. Barton. “Everybody wants to belong and be a part of something. So having an outlet to come to this after-school program where they feel safe, where they want to be every day, and where they’re coming every day, they feel they’re part of something. That way they don’t have to turn to the streets and hang out and be part of the ongoing violence that we’re dealing with here in Evanston.”
As part of the after-school program, staff brings the youth to the MetaMedia Center at McGaw Y, to First Presbyterian Church of Evanston for tutoring sessions, to Literature for All of Us at Family Focus – “so they can get a feel for other things going on in this community,” said Ms. Barton.
The outreach team is also working with social workers in the middle schools to connect with youth who are “struggling a little bit in the classroom and outside,” said Mr. Wilkerson. “We’re trying to engage them at a young age in something positive so they can see something else.”
Bridging the Gap
Mr. Brown said what is happening in Evanston is not unique. He said that kids are slipping through the cracks across the country despite the resources that are available to them. He said what the outreach team has found through its work is, “When we’re able to establish real relationships, not through social media, but through authentic relationships, it makes a difference.
“A mentor can be very effective in positively motivating and helping that person to develop,” said Mr. Brown.
Ms. Barton said, “The community needs to be open to change, to bridging the generation gap, be open to listening to the youth. We have to teach our community to help one another and give back and support one another.”
“Those who are genuinely interested should help,” said Ms. Davis. “That would go a long way because people do see when others genuinely care about them.”
Family Focus Evanston presented Kevin Brown, Manager of the City’s Youth and Young Adult Division, with its Individual Who Made a Difference award on April 30. “I am honored and humbled to receive” the award, said Mr. Brown. “I share this award with the phenomenal Youth and Young Adult Division staff. They are an awesome group, and without them, there would be no recognition. I also thank Mayor Tisdahl, the Evanston City Council and the leadership team at the City of Evanston. I love this community and will continue to do everything in my power to serve the citizens well.”
Porschia Davis, Assistant Manager of the City’s Youth and Young Adult Program, was recently selected as one of Chicago Scholars’ 35 under 35 Young Leaders Making an Impact. Ms. Davis is also actively involved in The Posse Foundation, LINK Unlimited Scholars and Step Up to help foster growth in inner-city youth. The 35 Under 35 Awards were created to recognize diverse, talented young professionals making an impact in the Chicago community.
Stacey Moragne is the 2014 recipient of the “Community Achievement Award” presented by the UIC Jane Adams College of Social Work.