Chicago Youth Ambassadors Help Struggling Families

The smell of popcorn, the promise of a Santa sighting and free bags of groceries greeted dozens of families who ventured to West Town Academy on December 17. The holiday giveaway offered clothing, toys, $100 gift cards and resources for those who need help with rent and utility bills.

Organized by Alternative School Network (ASN), the West Side site was one of two that sought to help families during the holiday season. The other was at the Progressive Leadership Academy on the south side.

Amid the West Side festivities, young community ambassadors, ages 16-24, from ASN member schools (West Town Academy, Pedro Albizu Campos, Progressive Leadership, Latino Youth High School, and Aspira Antonia Pantoja) made sure that families feel supported.

The Embassy is a year-long student leadership program designed by ASN’s Community Youth Employment Program, part of a joint initiative with Critical Health Network and the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services Community Youth Service Corps .

“The kids wanted to make sure families had a good vacation because of so much going on,” said Jessica Taylor, program director for the Critical Health Network, formed to provide emergency assistance to communities hardest hit by the pandemic in the city. .

Each Youth Ambassador helps up to six families in the Belmont-Cragin, Englewood, Pilsen, Little Village, Humboldt Park and Hermosa neighborhoods. Ninety Youth Ambassadors from the five schools reach out to families in the community on a daily or weekly basis to ensure their food and housing needs are met by offering bi-weekly food, rental support, utility assistance, and care services. medical. The ambassadors put in 40 hours a month helping community members and are compensated by the Youth Service Corps, Taylor said.

“They started in 2021, seeing that there was such a need and it continues to be a need, they continue to push forward,” Taylor said. “The festive events arose thanks to the students themselves; they saw a need and advocated for their clients.”

Taylor said the students did everything they could for the events, from organizing and promoting to inviting families, securing giveaways and helping set up the events. Yvette Hernandez, 21, a mother of two and recent graduate of Latino Youth High School, was on hand to help families because she knows “what the fight is like.”

“I know there are tough times when it comes to the holidays. And this year, it has been a difficult year for everyone,” Hernández said. “One minute they’re fine and the next minute, they’re in a fall where they have nothing to run to. They lost a family member or lost their job because they got sick and couldn’t work anymore.”

Hernandez joined the ambassador program a few months ago because she likes to help others, put a smile on their face, help people warm their hearts and make children happy. “Those who have children call me and say thank you for another dish or lights on instead.”

Taylor said ASN students have faced struggles, including housing insecurity and parenting as teenagers, leading to higher dropout rates. She said it’s not uncommon for young people re-enrolling in ASN schools to have spent time on the streets.

Laquaja Lafayette, 21, spent her late teen years sleeping on couches and in cars when she lost her mother to breast cancer in 2018. The 2020 West Town Academy graduate has been a youth ambassador for the community since that the program was created. And she plans to stay with him until she turns 24. Since her first child is due in March, she is set to move into her own place on the West Side this month with the father of her child. Lafayette believes that her experience makes her more valuable to the families she works with.

“I know what it feels like to go days without food, to be homeless, and to sleep from house to house,” Laquaja Lafayette said on December 17, 2022.

“I know what it feels like to go days without eating, to be homeless and to sleep from house to house,” he said. “Having been through it, I feel like they can connect with me better because I have experience.”

Youth Ambassadors from the community helped more than 480 families of color with holiday gifts. On Thanksgiving, families received meals with turkey or ham and all the fixings supported by Mariano’s, Walmart and DoorDash, with funding from the Chicago Youth Service Corps of the City of Chicago Department of Family and Support Services .

As students earn diplomas and develop their leadership, communication, advocacy, problem-solving, and conflict-resolution skills with the program, ASN hopes the combination will provide them with the opportunity to transition into the workforce, college, or trades. .

Hernández admits that her mindset shifted from money to books when she chose to help members of the community, a mindset that gives her hope. Hernandez, a Back of the Yards resident, said everyone needs someone to talk to and a shoulder to lean on.

“Keep your head up,” he tells fellow Chicagoans. “If anyone needs help, I’m more than (willing) to help as much as he can.” With her high school diploma, Hernandez hopes to enroll at Malcolm X College to pursue a law or nursing degree.

Lafayette is interested in a career as a social worker.

“I have a different perspective on life,” he said. “I feel like every day I live I look more and more like my mom. Because everything that she wanted to do and she didn’t get a chance to do it, I feel like I’m doing it.”

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