Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Blessed Sacrament Youth Center

In my quest to visit all of the tutoring and mentoring programs in our Tutor/Mentor Connection Program Locator, I am trying to make a special effort to reach out to programs on the south, west, and southwest sides where there are the highest rates of poverty, but also the lowest number of tutoring and mentoring programs. Many of these programs often are underfunded, understaffed, and trying to serve a need that is just too great for their resources. We are also much less familiar with many of these programs because they simply do not have the time or the capacity to fill out the Tutor/Mentor Connection Program Survey. Finally, many of these programs only last for a couple of years because despite all the good intentions of the founders to help kids succeed, they simply don't have the support and funding like many programs do in areas closer to the Loop. My fear is that as the economy gets worse, while even well-funded, well-managed, more visible programs are going to struggle, the programs in areas with higher poverty are simply going to fold. As a result, there will be that many more students out on the streets with no place to go, and the tragic results of that fact - joining gangs, selling and buying drugs, getting pregnant, dropping out of school will only increase.

That is why we were thrilled to get in contact with Blessed Sacrament Youth Center, which is located in North Lawndale. Blessed Sacrament Youth Center is located on the Corner of Cermak and Central Park, right on the border between the predominantly African-American North Lawndale neighborhood and the predominantly Latino Little Village Neighborhood. Blessed Sacrament has been around for 22 years, and originally was in a two flat. However, with the recent sale of the Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, Blessed Sacrament now has the entire use of the church to conduct its afterschool program. An especially cool part of the transformation from church to youth program is how the sanctuary has been transformed into a basketball court, where the kids can have a safe place to play after school.

Blessed Sacrament's program, which starts at 3pm Monday through Thursday, begins with supervised homework help. After finishing their homework, students do a form of community service, either cleaning up the church, or, if the weather is nice, to pick up trash in the surrounding neighborhood. This not only instills a sense of pride in the students for the learning center and neighborhood, but also shows an example to the surrounding community. Apparently, after the kids started picking up trash around the neighborhood, something that had never been done before, other neighborhood residents started picking up trash as well.

One thing that greatly draws from the Midtown Boys Program model is the idea of the character talk. After the students perform community service, they are given a talk on a particular virture such as cheerfulness or tenacity. The after-school program then finishes off with a sports activity such as basketball or jump rope.

Recruiting students doesn't seem to be a problem for Blessed Sacrament, although it was was mentioned that they would like to see more students from the Little Village neighborhood come to the program since there are so many more young people in that neighborhood than in North Lawndale. Recruiting volunteers is a problem, however. North Lawndale seems to have a bad reputation amongst potential volunteers, and despite being one block from the Central Park Pink Line Stop and just blocks from the Eisenhower Expressway, many volunteers have expressed concern about their safety in coming to volunteer at Blessed Sacrament. Their is a college student who comes to work specifically with the girls in the program, but Blessed Sacrament has found another solution to the issue of volunteers coming to the youth center.

Every Saturday, twelve students are bussed to St. Michael's Church in Old Town to meet with one-on-one volunteer tutor-mentors in their Summit Tutoring Program. They would like to expand the program, and also are welcome to having volunteers come to the center in North Lawndale to supervise the after-school program. Tutor/Mentor Connection is willing to help in any way to make this possible.

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