Pilsen nonprofit ends long-standing youth program, blames Illinois

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About five years ago, when the state first cut funding, it was the beginning of the end for PJ Youth, according to Linda Tortolero, CEO and president of Mujeres Latinas en Accion. | Photo from Proyecto Juventud Facebook Page

For the first time in its 45-year history, Mujeres Latinas en Accion — a Pilsen-based nonprofit that specializes in providing support for Latina victims of domestic violence and sexual assault — has no dedicated youth program.

The nonprofit was recently forced to shut down its program, called Proyecto Juventud, or PJ Youth, due to a lack of state funding, according to officials. Students launched a GoFundMe campaign to save the beloved program, but their efforts came up woefully short. The last PJ Youth class was held Dec. 31.

“This space was very essential for [student] healing and development,” said Gabriela Fuentes, former advocate for the program. “If it’s no longer available to them and their families, I think that really poses a concern for the community.”

PJ Youth served up to 90 students, ranging in age from 10 to 24. Through partnerships with other local organizations like After School Matters the daily after-school program provided everything from domestic violence support and sexual education courses to nutrition workshops and therapy sessions. In recent years, the program started offering academic lessons, many of them focused on STEM.

According to Fuentes, the majority of students – approximately 80 percent – are either witnesses to or victims of domestic violence.

State funding critical to support of PJ Youth

Like other similar organizations, Mujeres relies on state funding to run programs. So about five years ago, when the state cut funding for a grant fueled by the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, it was the beginning of the end for PJ Youth, according to Linda Tortolero, CEO and president of Mujeres Latinas en Accion.

“This is the grant that really provided the backbone of this program, targeting young women and reproductive health, training them to be advocates for their own health,” Tortolero said.

The ensuing state budget crisis, which dragged on for more than two years, exacerbated the problem, not only because more necessary state grants were eliminated but also because staffers were suddenly charged with a new consuming task, according to Tortolero.

“When the state budget crisis happened, you were seeing a lot of time spent on advocacy and education. It’s unfortunate that this happened,” she said, adding that it took time away from finding new funding sources.

Facing a deficit of $75,000, the board voted in October to shut down PJ Youth by the end of the year, according to Tortolero. Now, for the first time in 45 years, Mujeres no longer offers a comprehensive youth program, though it still offers some child therapy.

Few similar programs for inner-city youth

Tortoreo and her staff were able to identify a few other local agencies that offer youth programs, including the Chicago Center for Arts and Technology.

But Fuentes said those programs don’t cater to students who are victims of domestic violence.

“I think the students do have options for academics, but when it comes to therapy and domestic violence harm reduction services, I can’t say 100 percent that those agencies have staff or are specialized in providing those curriculums,” Fuentes said.

The program started as a teenage runaway group when the organization was founded in 1973. Over the years, the program evolved, and in the late 1990s, it officially became known as PJ Youth.

Tortolero said the shutdown is a symptom of a much larger problem in Chicago that plagues Latino and African-American communities.

“In a city like Chicago, where there are so many challenges for students of color, in terms of violence, poor schools, lack of opportunities … it’s sad when we have to make these decisions to cut programs that affect these young people,” she said. “I think that we, as a society, need to figure out a better way to make sure these programs for students of color continue. It’s not a challenge Mujeres has alone.”

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