The smell of popcorn, the promise of a Santa sighting, and bags of free groceries greeted dozens of families who ventured out to West Town Academy on Dec. 17. The holiday giveaway offered clothes, toys, $100 gift cards and resources for those who need help with rent and utility bills.
Hosted by the 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 were community youth ambassadors, ages 16 to 24, from ASN’s member schools — West Town Academy, Pedro Albizu Campos, Progressive Leadership, Latino Youth High School and Aspira Antonia Pantoja — making sure families felt supported.
The ambassadorship is a yearlong student leadership program designed by ASN’s community youth employment program, part of a joint initiative with the Critical Health Network and Chicago Department of Family and Support Services’ Community Youth Service Corps.
“The kids wanted to ensure that the families would have a good holiday due to so many things going on,” said Jessica Taylor, program director of the Critical Health Network, formed to provide emergency assistance to the city’s hardest hit communities in the pandemic.
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 check in with community families on a daily or weekly basis to make sure their food and shelter needs are met by offering groceries on a biweekly basis, rent support, utility assistance and health care services. Ambassadors spend 40 hours a month helping community members and are compensated by the Youth Service Corps, Taylor said.
“They started in 2021, seeing there was such a need and continues to be a need, they continue to press through,” Taylor said. “The holiday events came about thanks to the students themselves; they saw a need and advocated for their clients.”
Taylor said the students did everything for the events, from organizing and promoting to inviting families, securing the giveaways and helping run the events. Yvette Hernandez, 21, a mother of two and a new graduate from Latino Youth High School, was on hand to help families because she knows “how the struggle is.”
“I know there are hard times when it comes to the holidays. And this year, it’s been a rough year for everybody,” Hernandez said. “One minute they’re OK and the next minute, they’re in a downfall where they don’t have nothing to run to. They either lost a family member or lost their job because they got sick and they couldn’t work no more.”
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. “The ones that got children, they call and tell me thank you for another plate or lights on in their place.”
Taylor said ASN students have endured struggles themselves, including housing insecurity and teen parenting, which lead to higher school dropout rates. She said it’s not uncommon that youths who are re-enrolled in ASN schools have spent time on the streets.
Laquaja Lafayette, 21, spent her later 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 community youth ambassador since the program was created. And she plans on staying with it until she turns 24. With her first child due in March, she’s ready to move into her own place on the West Side this month with her child’s father. Lafayette believes her experience makes her more of an asset to the families she works with.
“I know what it feels like to go days without eating, and being homeless and sleeping from house to house,” she said. “Having went through that, I feel like they can connect to me better because I have experience.”
The community youth ambassadors helped more than 480 families of color with the holiday giveaways. At Thanksgiving, families received meals with a turkey or a ham and all the fixings with the support of Mariano’s, Walmart and DoorDash, with funding from the city of Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services’ Chicago Youth Service Corps.
While students are getting diplomas and building their leadership, communication, advocacy, problem solving, and conflict resolution skills with the program, ASN is hoping the mix is providing them the opportunity to transition into the workforce, college or trades.
Hernandez admits her mindset shifted from money to books when she chose to help community members, a mindset that brings her hope. Hernandez, a Back of the Yards resident, said everybody needs somebody to talk to and a shoulder to lean on.
“Keep your head up,” she tells other Chicagoans. “If anybody needs help, I’m more than (willing) to help as much as I can.” With her high school diploma, Hernandez is looking forward to enrolling in 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,” she said. “I feel like every day I live I’m becoming more and more like my mama. Because everything that she wanted to do that she didn’t get a chance to, I feel that I’m doing it.”