Town hall highlights programs for at-risk teens and young adults

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Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago) held a town hall meeting last week to discuss youth programs available to Austin residents, but some in attendance said they want to see more preventive programs for children under the age of 13.

“We need to get to kids before the problems start,” Austin resident Randy Williams said after members of the panel spoke.

He wants to know where the funds are for programs that target kids 13 and under.

“I been to forum after forum; there’s no one to answer that,” he said.

After noticing the lack of preventive programs, Williams started his own organization – Sports Care Center Inc. – to keep kids as young as 3 off the street, but he said funding is hard to come by, and more programs like his are needed in the community.

Rashad Saafir, a psychologist at Bobby E. Wright Behavioral Health Center, agreed.

“We start trying to change these problems with our children too late in the process,” said Saafir.

Children learn to deal with their environment at a very young age, he said.

Organizations represented at the event included Year Up, Chicago Park District, Lincoln’s Challenge Academy, the West Cook YMCA and Job Corps — programs for at-risk youth that mostly focus on ages 16-24.

Rep. Ford told the group of around 40 that the biggest complaint he hears is that there are not enough resources in the neighborhood.

“But doing the job that I do, I’ve found out there is so much for people to do. They just have to want to do it,” he said.

He held the Sept. 17 meeting to help shed light on some of the available resources.

Year Up teaches 18-to 24-year-olds personal and professional development. The program offers IT training and has a partnership with Harold Washington College.

Job Corps, an education and job training program for 16- t0 24-year-olds, highlighted its partnership with City Colleges of Chicago, work-based learning internships and a residential facility – all at no cost because it’s administered through the U.S. Department of Labor.

The Chicago Park District wants to give kids something to do, said Maretta Brown-Miller who was representing the agency.

“They [kids] have choices, but we have to pass that information on to our children. People will perish for the lack of knowledge,” she said.

“People in the community say the fees are too high, but we can work around that,” she said.

She also urged people to sign kids up for next year’s summer camps because there will be financial aid available.

The West Cook YMCA in Oak Park highlighted a variety of free and low cost programs, including a teen night available to Austin residents. Austin’s YMCA closed last year.

Emory Holmes, Lincoln’s Challenge Academy’s coordinator for the Chicago Metro area, brought five students and one graduate of the military school to talk about what the program means to them.

Each student is supposed to get a mentor when he or she graduates from the program, but there’s no pool of mentors in Chicago, and they are looking for volunteers, said Holmes.

Ford closed the night by bringing Austin resident Blake Sercye to the stage as an example of “Austin being a great place with a lot of good things going on.”

Sercye grew up in the neighborhood before going to Princeton University, then earning a law degree from the University of Chicago.

Now the 26-year-old works as an associate at the law firm Jenner & Block, where he also does pro bono work representing people with fair housing and prisoner’s rights issues.

Last month, the Austin native announced his candidacy for 1st District Cook County commissioner.

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