A project by journalism students in the convergence newsroom at Roosevelt University.

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Saving Our Sons

      There is a crisis in America. It is a crisis of epic proportions, one that threatens the very existence of a people and that centers around the premature deaths of one group of Americans for whom the statistical data paints a grim portrait: Young black men. Among the alarming numbers is a bourgeoning number of homicides, which remains the leading cause of death among young black men ages 15 to 34, something the Centers for Disease Control have designated a national epidemic.
  Coupled with figures that show the rate of new HIV cases among black men growing at an alarming and disproportionate rate to men of other races, and a grim picture of other demographics, black males have for decades now maintained the distinction of being dubbed an “endangered species.”
      Indeed young black men today have killed more young black men historically than the Ku Klux Klan. In fact, the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama recorded 3,446 lynchings of blacks from 1882 to 1968—the toll of 86 years. But the toll of blacks murdered in Chicago alone over just 18 years, from 1991 to 2009—most of them young black men by young black men: Nearly 10,000, and counting.
    Also impacting young black men are these cold hard facts: The U.S. Census reports that one in every four of 34.6 million African Americans live below the national poverty level; that more than 40 percent of family households in the African-American community are headed by women; that 7 out of 10 children born to African Americans are born to single mothers; that more than 846,000 black men are in state or federal prisons and jails—representing more than 40 percent of the nation’s prison population and that there are more black men in prison and jail than in college.
      Additionally, researchers have identified what they call a “schools to prison pipeline” in which they contend you can predict with some degree of statistical certainty by third and fourth grade the number of black and brown boys destined for incarceration.
      This is the portrait of the problem that looms.
   But in our project in the convergence newsroom this semester (Spring 2011) we were after the solutions. In Chicago and across the region, indeed across America, there is a battle to stem this tide and save young black men. 
      What we present here is a snapshot of some of those valiant and humane efforts on the front lines and the faces, voices, stories of those involved in saving our sons. 
Professor John W. Fountain

Helping boys become men: B.A.M.

        Inside Room 404 of Harper High School, wooden rocking chairs are arranged in a circle with black upholstered couches and chairs pushed against the walls. Rocking in the chairs, a group of freshman boys in the school uniform of maroon shirt and kaki pants fidget with the red school lanyards around their necks, tap their toes and glance at each other. Every Thursday during school, these young men are here for the program known as Becoming a Man. The program is part of Youth Guidance, a not-for-profit organization that seeks to “assists at-risk students in gaining academic, social and emotional skills needed to stay on track in school, graduate and seek further education.”
      The number of filled chairs fluctuates – usually eight to 15 boys – depending on who came to school that day or got suspended, say the program’s administrators. B.A.M counselor Dajana Naba starts the group off with “check-ins,” going around the circle for each boy to say what made him sad, mad or glad this week. During a recent session, Dajana checks in first, telling the boys he was scared the day before, when he witnessed a man shoot someone in a crowd of people waiting for a bus. Dajana often waits for the bus at that stop. A tall, slim African-American man with close shaved hair and a few gray hairs in his mustache and goatee, Dajana previously worked in psychiatry at a hospital.
          A quiet boy named Derek says simply, “Everything’s cool.”
 Dajana asks each boy a few specific questions as they check in, trying to get them to share in a little more detail and following up with them about their families or school.
“It’s not cool to (be) emotional in the school culture,” Dajana says.
Getting the boys to share takes time, but sometimes they say surprising things. Dajana says one boy named Granville is oppositional but comes every week, and recently opened up about his uncle passing away.
             The boys interrupt check-ins, pestering Dajana about going to the gym to play basketball. Dajana tries to explain they have other things to do in B.A.M. and can’t go to the gym every day. Still, they persist, hoping there will be enough time for them to play.
         The check-in is a regular part of the B.A.M curriculum, which targets male teens in need of mentoring and male role modeling, many of who struggle with issues in behavior, attitude and academic value. A unique program, it works to develop five values: integrity, accountability, self-determination, positive anger expression and visionary goal setting. Recently, Dajana’s group worked on self-determination, building focus and perseverance to get past self-defeating thoughts and other barriers to attain their goals.
         Tony DiVittorio developed B.A.M. more than 10 years ago to help boys learn to control impulses, channel anger and develop coping skills through group and one-on-one counseling. He says the program has expanded to 40 groups in 17 Chicago schools. The biggest challenge for B.A.M. now, is funding, DiVittorio says. Grants and funding runs out by the end of the year, and DiVittorio has to find more funding to keep the program running. Only one school has the funds set aside for next year, he said.
      Erik J. Olson, the athletics and activities director at Harper, says research shows special education, mentor programs and athletics all help to raise school attendance rates. At Harper, 99.7 percent of the students are black and less than half of them will graduate high school in five years, according to Chicago Public Schools’ annual scorecard. Olson says the number of students constantly changes as students move or dropout. There were over 800 students at the beginning of the school year and now there are 614, Olson says.
     “B.A.M. makes a big impact on the guys,” says Olson who recalls that a high school boy shared that his favorite memory at Harper last year was a B.A.M. youth conference.
     After check-ins, Dajana introduces breathing and mediation exercises, asking the young men to breathe in through their nose and exhale through their mouth. Then he asks them to inhale and hold the breath for 10 seconds. Most of the boys follow the instructions for the breathing exercise, although struggling to keep a straight face. While Dajana counts to 10, a few distracted boys make eye contact, giggling, smiling and letting go of the breath.
      Calmly, Dajana continues the exercises and leads them to chant, “I will not waste my brain.” After a few more breathing and positive-thought replacement exercises, he asks them if they feel any different.
   “It probably helps with patience,” says a freshman named Quintel.
Another says, “I feel like I could do anything.”
Through discussions, group exercises, field trips and one-on-one counseling, B.A.M. seeks to develop the kind of character in the boys for them to find stability and strength, even in the midst of turbulent families and violent neighborhoods.
When the bell rings for the next school period to start, the boys trickle into the wide hallway with maroon lockers along the walls. Herded along by the teachers, the boys disappear into a flow of maroon and kaki identically-clad students shuffling to their next classes.
By Shannon McFarland

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Source: National Public Radio

His pain, their gain

According to Becoming A Man program counselors, one of the final stages of becoming a man is learning how to face and accept criticism from your peers and colleagues. Even though all of the counselors have already become men, they too say they live by the values they teach to at-risk young men throughout Chicago through B.A.M., a mentoring, counseling and anti-violence program created by Anthony DiVittorio.

“Working with Tony is really great,” Tim Jackson, a B.A.M. counselor said. “If you get the chance to read the curriculum, you can tell he really poured it out on it.

In addition to Jackson, B.A.M. counselors Calvin Ferguson and Jason Story expressed similar sentiments and said they consider DiVittorio to be an older brother more than anything.

     “When Tony comes to the groups, the guys focus differently,” Ferguson said. “He’s almost like a brother in a sense—he’s the brother who’s been everywhere and now he’s come home to tell the story.” Story explained how significant DiVittorio’s involvement with the youth in the program really is, saying that even the most ‘knuckle-head’ of youth pay attention when DiVittorio’s around.
      “When Tony is around, even they want to know more about him,” Story said. “They renamed him, ‘Tone-Bone,’ and call him ‘Steven Seagal.’”
In 2002, the B.A.M. program was first established through Youth Guidance –a social service agency that provides services to at-risk youth— at Roberto Clemente High School, located in Humboldt Park on the city’s West Side. The program was intended to provide male youths in the process of becoming a man with the guidance to leading a better life.
According to Youth Guidance, B.A.M. is an evidence-based, group counseling/mentoring, violence prevention and educational enrichment program that is focused on building socio-emotional and behavioral skills among at-risk young male students.  B.A.M. is aimed specifically at males because they are more likely than females to be either victims or perpetrators of violent crime, according to officials.
For DiVittorio, his rewarded is in knowing that other male youth –that were just like him—are being helped the way that they are through the program.
“I was wounded,” DiVittorio said. “My older brother, when I was 5-years old, taught me how to wrestle, and then I had my father figure. He was the only male that took me under his wing. When I was about 7 years old, that’s when he got into drugs.”
DiVittorio explained that because of all the struggles he had to deal with growing up, his desire for fatherhood and mentoring remained constant. It was only until he turned 22 that he finally found what he had desired while growing up.
“I got my first martial arts instructor when I was age 22, and he transformed my life,” DiVittorio said. “When he transformed my life, he made me realize what I was missing.”
Since crossing paths with his martial arts instructor, DiVitorrio’s purpose in life changed for him and began him on the path to helping other males.
Because of the struggles that DiVittorio dealt with growing up, he said he has made B.A.M. focus exactly on the kinds of struggles that potential at-risk males face today.
 “We can work with the most troublesome kids,” Jackson said. “You can work with youth outside of your race because they can identify what the program is about.”
However, it’s not just the curriculum that makes B.A.M. successful but it also includes the counselors who administer it, according to DiVittorio.
“It’s true, I’m very passionate about what I do, but there’s also many other people who are very passionate as well,” DiVittorio said. “You just got to find them.”

By Craig Cody Coor

At Christ the King School hard work pays

      In the red and white, state-of-the-art classroom, the students listened carefully as their coach spoke about the upcoming track season. They raised their hands to answer questions about what it takes to be successful in the sport, shouting out “focus,” “motivation,” “building skills” and “having a positive attitude.”
  Principal Robert Evans, tall and youthful, then took over, explaining that track is his favorite sport. “From sixth grade through junior year I was running,” he said. “I went to school debt-free on a track scholarship.”
He then told the students that discipline is extremely important in track and that goals must be set. “You have to figure out where your skills are and hone in,” he said. “Don’t think you’re good – be good.”
           At Christ the King Jesuit College Preparatory School, all students – not just those in track – learn about commitment. By graduation, the school’s aim is that students will also have learned to be open to growth, intellectually competent, loving, committed to justice and a seasoned, responsible worker. Since 2008, the school has served the Austin neighborhood and surrounding areas—neighborhoods where gang members hang out on the street corners while students inside the school’s brand new walls are given knowledge, faith and hope for the future.
           Back in the classroom one recent day, Evans showed a few YouTube videos of record-breaking runners on a large projection screen. He said it is important for everyone to know last year’s results and world records so the students can set goals for themselves. Mentioning the story of The Little Prince, Evans told the students that they must “dream for the endless immensity of the sea.”
            A few minutes later, in a large conference room, Evans described the way students receive their real world education. The school uses what is known as the Cristo Rey model, which Evans said incorporates a corporate work study program that helps pay 75 percent of each student’s tuition. In exchange, each student works a job five days a month during school hours. They work in places like banks and law firms, Evans said.
“It gives students an opportunity to pay the bills,” he said. Evans also stressed that the number one thing at the school is that students must be employable. “You have to work.”
             Students assigned to work on any given day arrive at school at 7:30 a.m., and vans and buses take them to work, Evans explained.
“This way, students work nine to five and get to see the day to day of what people do. They work in teams of four at each location and each person works one day out of the week, alternating Mondays.”
“They undergo a battery of tests,” he said of the placement of students in an array of jobs.
Although this education model pays for 75 percent of tuition, families are still responsible for the remaining amount, which still can be costly. Evans said the school helps students who are underserved and under-resourced, and those who demonstrate need. The school also fundraises to help defray the costs of education, he said.
A quality education is coveted here in a City where the dropout rates in public schools continues to climb and many students, particularly on the West and South sides succumb to life on the streets. Evans says Christ the King is different.
“For a lot of students, I don’t have to keep them motivated. They know what they want and they know what they don’t want. I would say 95 percent of the students are highly motivated,” Evans said.
              On that 5  percent who may cause problems for the school, Evans does everything he can to help straighten them out. “I have extremely low tolerance for people who think success is optional,” he said, “My expectation is the moon, nothing less.”
              A student named Kendra is one student that Evans says embodies everything good about the school. As a junior and also a member of the school’s first class, she will be in the school’s first graduating class.
“I work at the Community Bank of Oak Park River Forest,” Kendra said. Working as a clerk, she files, makes calls and handles other general office tasks. Asked whether she wants to go into banking, she said, “At first I wanted to but not anymore. I want to be a computer engineer. I’m a computer freak.”
              Even though there are closer schools to her house, Kendra said she comes to Christ the King for a better education.
“I didn’t want to go to North Lawndale,” she said, referring to a school in another West Side neighborhood. “This is a different setting.”
             A young man named Navar is  a second semester freshman and  another promising student at Christ the King.
“This school, I like it a lot,” Navar said. “It has a lot of spirit and positive energy.”
 Working at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, Navar said he enjoys his work-study, taking inventory. Interested in philanthropy and law, Navar says he hopes he doesn’t have to leave this job next year. Students are not always able to stay in the same work-study.
             “I would never go to my neighborhood schools,” he said. “They hardly learn anything and the guys are always messing around in class.”
Navar also said there is a lot of gang activity at other schools and he is able to stay away from it at Christ the King.
           “Nobody here gangbangs,” he said.
             At a school in the middle of a bad neighborhood, Christ the King makes an impression on its students and seeks to prepare them for life ahead with discipline and, of course, hard work. As Evans said, “There’s only one gear – go hard.”
By Kira Stiers
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A crown jewel and safe-haven for kids

The sounds of laughter and playing rang out from a classroom and down a hallway towards the front of the building. At the entrance, a fish-tank hummed loudly while fish swim lazily. Across from the tank, a case proudly displays trophies documenting the achievements of the center. At a large circular desk surrounded by pictures of kids, information, and a large piece of white paper covered with children’s handprints, Ms. Campbell, a parent-volunteer, sits, greeting parents and children.
 Soon a white van pulls up and more children run screaming and laughing through the front door, calling out greetings to Ms. Campbell, signing in and running to a classroom down the hall.
        It was just another day at the Rebecca K. Crown Youth Center, located in the South Shore neighborhood, at 7601 S. Phillips Ave..
           The Rebecca K. Crown Center is a part of the Chicago Youth Center organization, founded in 1956 by Chicago businessmen Elliott Donnelley and Sidney Epstein, according to CYC’s official website. It was started as a way to give inner-city and impoverished youth an alternative to hanging out on the streets.
             The Chicago Youth Center started with the merger of three boys clubs that were on the brink of collapse, according to CYC literature. It was this merger that started the first youth center, which, according to CYC, was the first in the city that also accepted girls into all the programs the CYC offered.
              In 1977, the South Shore neighborhood welcomed the CYC with the South Shore Community Center.   It was later renamed the Rebecca K. Crown Center in honor of a Crown Family Foundation grant, according to the CYC’s website.
              At the center recently, Michelle Myers, a youth worker, ushered the after-school kids into a classroom for their afternoon snack.
            “A program like this makes a world of difference” Myers’ said. “It shows them that somebody cares.”
             According to Eddie Wilson, director at Rebecca Crown Center, the after-school program, which gives kids a safe place to do homework and other activities, is one of five programs offered by the Rebecca Crown Center.
 The center offers a head start program that is taught by bachelor’s degree-level teachers and gives children ages 3 to 5 the chance to experience a creative curriculum.
There is also a teen leadership development afterschool program for 13 to 19-year-olds. This program offers teens activities that include tutoring, violence prevention, life skills development and sports.
And during summer, there is a day camp that offers children, 5 to 12, safe recreational activities during the day in the summer, including arts and crafts and field trips. The Rebecca Crown Center also offers a College and Career Readiness program that helps the kids understand the importance of college to their future success, according to Wilson.
Myers said she started working with the Rebecca Crown Center because her daughter was in the head start program. She now works at the center with the afterschool children. She said that places like the Rebecca Crown Center, are very important in inner-city neighborhoods. The center offers kids a social education, each day children from different neighborhood schools come to the afterschool program, allowing the students to make connections they might not have made on their own.
One recent afternoon, after the children had their snack, they went into the large gymnasium to play together. On one side of gym, a group of boys played a half-court game of basketballs while girls jumped rope. Some of the parent-volunteers and teachers stood around the gym and talked to each other and other students, while other’s played with the students on the court.
The staff at the center spends a lot of time with the kids and becomes mentors to them. Myer’s said that when she misses a day of work the kids notice and go out of their way to find out why she was not there with them. She said that children here put their trust in the staff because the staff cares about them.
 “For four hours, the kids know they will get love, food and exercise,” Myers added.
  According to Wilson, the Rebecca Crown Center is funded through a mixture of federal, state, and private or corporate donations as well as parent fees. Parents also help the center by volunteering their time and services.
Ms. Campbell has been a part of the center for almost 20 years, her children started at the Rebecca Crown Center in the head-start program. Even after her children left she stayed on as a volunteer at the center because of the impact the center had on children.
    “The center makes a big difference on children,” Campbell said as a child ran past her. “They have people other than their parents that love them.”
     Since the center runs programs from head-start to a teen program, many siblings are at the center together, giving them a chance to spend time together instead of doing something on their own at home.
     “This center is a family affair,” Myer said.
     As the day went on, it became evident that parents and the community were a prominent part of the Rebecca Crown Center. Posted around the entrance were flyers for upcoming events and a box collecting toy for the center’s ongoing toy drive.
Wilson said that he wants the center to be a beacon of activity and information for the community we serve.
            “I want the center to always be relevant to the community and to do that we must be involved in the community and grow and change as the community grows and changes,” Wilson said.
By Erika Powell

Helping homeless youths: The Night Ministry

 According to the Lakeview Action Coalition, there are approximately 26,000 youths in Illinois that experience homelessness with15,000 youths in Chicago alone. Youths who have to suffer homelessness have very few options in order to help them get back on their feet, say officials. But several organizations around the city, including the Night Ministry, are working to help them find a way to get back on their feet. Megan Groves, marketing & communications coordinator for The Night Ministry, a Lakeview-based, non-profit organization that helps homeless youths, says the most important thing is to offer help to these kids no matter what situation.
“We talk to young people and help them out,” Groves said. “We are going out there to help the youth and build relationships with the individuals.”
              The Night Ministry, founded in 1976, offers many programs and supplies for the homeless living on the streets of Chicago.
              According to the Night Ministry, one of the largest demographics they help is the African-American community. From July 2009 to June 2010, the agency assisted 36,905 African-Americans. Of those, 11,427 were ages of 13 to 34. The Night Ministry lists many reasons for homelessness, including lack of employment, domestic violence, problems in school and drugs.
             “We have that core groups of youths we help more than others,” Groves said. “But there are some we only see once or twice and we still help them.
               The Night Ministry offers a number of programs for homeless youths in the city. Two mainstays of their organization are their Youth Outreach program and Youth Housing program..
               “With our youth outreach program we offer meals, supplies and counseling to individuals who want it,” Groves said.
                 Their youth outreach program also has a health outreach bus that makes two stops in Lakeview and one stop in Rogers Park every week. Groves said the van has about four volunteers working with youths either helping packing meals, handing out safe sex or hygiene kits. While the youth outreach team has no physicians on hand, Groves said they can help point these youths in the right direction.
                “The outreach time is going out their bringing help to the youth directly, rather than a social service agency that a young person experiencing (homelessness) has to go to,” Groves said. “We have a set schedule [stops in Lakeview and Rogers Park] every week so the kids know we are there. We build these relationships and refer them to services they need or help them make a plan, pertaining to an individuals need.”
         Along with their Youth Outreach team that is helping build relationships on the street, the Night Ministry also has several youth housing programs that offer overnight and daytime living arrangements.
        Their Open Door Youth Shelter has two core, housing programs, which include their interim housing and transitional living programs. Groves said that the interim housing is a way they can help build relationships with the youths and help them along their way.
         Their transitional living program, Groves said, offers youths with a longer stay limit. Youths, ages 16-20 can stay at the shelter for as long as two years.Groves said the Night Ministry opened a new shelter in January of this year, which is open January to May. The shelter, Groves said is the city’s first overnight only youth shelter.
           “It’s a easy place for youths to come if they need a place to stay,” Groves said.
           But Groves said the most important thing is to build trust and relationships with the young people the agency serves.
                 “You to talk to young people and build relationships with them,” Groves said. “Trust builds from there and you can help refer these kids to services they need and with that trust they are more likely to go and receive help.”
By Chris Zois

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The Night Ministry 

Flipping, tumbling toward success: 52 years and counting

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        A third-grade birthday boy stood on the mat, trembling with excitement and nervousness as six tumblers soared one by one over his Burger King crown. At 14 feet in the air, the Jesse White Tumbling Team defied gravity as 200 elementary school students screamed with delight and awe.
       Before the act, Tavais Fletcher picked up a game of basketball with fellow tumblers in his bright red and white sweatshirt that boasts his home city of Chicago. As a veteran tumbler at age 20, Fletcher has seen how the structure of training, tutoring and teamwork impacts children from across the city. The team serves as a juvenile delinquency prevention program to keep kids away from drinking and drugs.
            “We don’t let people get off the path. They drop below a C average, we help them during the summer and they get back on in the fall,” says Fletcher.
              In the 52 years that the Jesse White Tumbling Team has been performing, a C-average for student tumblers has indeed been mandatory to continue on the team. To keep student-athletes on the right path, report cards are brought in for review and those who do not make the grade must attend the tutoring program provided by the team.
             “Put something in between your ears. In life, aim high. The only time you look down is to tie your shoes,” Jesse White himself says. “Be in school, on time, everyday.”
               Education, celebrity, camaraderie and paid gigs also help keep tumblers on the path to success, organizers say. The team has traveled abroad, starred in 25 commercials, shared the stage with NFL, NBA and NHL stars and has more than 1,500 shows this year alone.
               Recently, White—who is also Illinois’ secretary of state—sent Fletcher to the mat, reminding students not to try at home, a round-off, flip, back summersault as cheers followed.
              The next tumbler, Marvin Johnson, snapped his suspenders and topped Fletcher’s act with a straight cartwheel, round-off, flip, back summersault full twist to an eruption of applause and shrieks that bounced off the walls of the small gym. Johnson ran through a pack of first-graders like a celebrity with hi-five’s, smiles and hugs.
              Johnson will be enrolling at the University of Illinois in the fall. His tumbling background will follow him through college with a major in sports kinesiology.
             “We love this, the kids. I mean, we do everything; churches, weddings, barbeques, any family gathering really,” says Johnson, speaking of where the group performs.
               As those in attendance watched Johnson interact with the kids smiles spread across the gym, so infectious that even the two suits at the door couldn’t resist.
             “You would think [White] would be the one in the suit,” said one teacher of the security standing at the door.
              As secretary of state, White travels in a black SUV with two bodyguards, who wear dashing black suits. But when traveling with any of his six tumbling teams, he travels in the group’s van and wears sweats that match the young tumblers as he also tumbles and tucks.
              A former member of the U.S. Army, White coaches all 285 tumblers on six teams with discipline and routine—or “tough love” as he calls it. Before the act, each tumbler has an assigned task, whether it is carrying out the mats or trampoline. The sooner the work is done, the sooner they can play. But the group’s mission is still serious business.
            “Not all go to college, but the bulk graduate from high school. We want to keep them out of SWU, Sad Walk University,” says White. “Keep them leafless, smokeless and pipe-less.”
              It is White’s belief that education keeps youths off the street and away from gangs. The tumbling team originally began as a positive alternative to housing projects such as Cabrini-Green and Henry Horner communities. The education program of the tumbling team helps give kids an alternative to gangs, drugs, alcohol and smoking.
              The tumbling program is split into three parts: the tumbling team, the training program and the scholars program. With over 13,000 student-athletes that have been through the tumbling team, there are 25 currently enrolled in college. The Jesse White Tumbling Team offers $1,000 to $5,000 in college scholarships.
              Though the program is designed to keep kids on the right track, some may stray. Both Fletcher and Johnson have seen how living without structure outside of school can affect the rest of their lives. And both remember with regret friends who lost their way and even those who were never on the team—lost to the street, to gangs, crime and prison.
             “If you choose that system, that’s your choice,” says Fletcher. We get on the right path here. We have guys who get out and send their kids here.”
By Casey Nunes

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