Summer program empowers West Side youth

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Austin girls shared inspirational narratives and what they’ve learned through a  communication and visual arts summer program.

The event, held last week, was part of the closing celebration of the I Am We’s pilot program C.A.K.E (Communication, Accountability, Knowledge and Effectiveness), which partners with the Chicago Park District.

The program aims to promote leadership, deter violence and create unity among teen girls through the medium of storytelling.

The primary goal of the program is to curb negative behavior by increasing communication skills, said Latisha Thomas, CEO and founder of I Am We. She noted that poor behavior and miscommunication contribute to about 80 percent of misunderstandings and fights among girls.

“Our goal is to teach girls how to be effective communicators, to be mindful of what their body is doing as far as non-verbal communication and how to respond appropriately,”  Thomas said.

The daughter of a teen mother, Thomas grew up in a South Side housing project and a gang-infested community, she said. A neighbor introduced Thomas to storytelling, something she’s been passionate about ever since.

“Stories saved my life,” Thomas said. “If we were to look at statistics, I would not be here.”

Through stories, Thomas said she was inspired to go to college and graduate school, too. She earned a bachelor’s degree in film from Columbia College Chicago and an MBA from Benedictine University.

During Wednesday’s event at the Austin Town Hall, 11-year-old Deoniah Collins shared an inspirational story about her desire to  pursue an education at her father’s alma mater and stay in his dorm room. Deoniah depicted her father as a highly educated man who inspires her to follow her dreams.

She said storytelling makes her feel better and takes her to a peaceful place. Deoniah said the program has taught her many life lessons she can use daily.

“It teaches us how to grow up, to not be a drop out and to be responsible for what you do and what you say,” she said.

Isis Berry,12, shared her story about growing up with a single father who is very active in her life. She depicts her father as a hardworking and loving man who goes above and beyond for her and others.

Isis decided to share her story because she knows that a lot of African-Americans females do not have fathers in their households, she said. She also wanted to share her story because she said it’s rare to see a man take on both roles, serving as a mother and father.

Isis said the program has taught her how to engage and communicate with others.

“I learned just how to communicate with people and be myself and not be afraid to say things,” she said.

Keyosha Wilson, 11, also shared a story about the close bond she shares with her father. Keyosha said she spends a lot of time with her father because of her mother’s work. She depicts her father as loving man who never tells her “no.”

“He makes me feel happy because I get to do a lot with him,” Keyosha said. “My dad is my star, he is my everything.”

Marissa Urbaniak, 11, shared a story about living with eczema and having a supportive mom who encourages her and makes her feel beautiful.

“I love my mom,” Marissa said. “She makes me feel like I am no different than anyone else.”

Marissa said the program has helped her learn how to communicate with a purpose.

Summer camp counselor Arica Daley, who attended meetings with the girls, said the program comes during an important stage in the girls’ lives.

“A lot of girls between the ages of 10 and 13  don’t necessarily know how to express themselves and how they feel,” Daley said. “They are going through tons of emotions, starting to like boys and all that good stuff. I feel like being able to communicate effectively will lessen some of the drama that comes with being a pre-teen.”

Thomas, I Am We’s founder, hopes the girls will use what they’ve learned to impact change.

“My hope for the young people is that they will go on to achieve academically, that they can be prepared to stay into college, that they can communicate effectively, and be  leaders and ambassadors for change,” Thomas said.

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