Growing up in South Lawndale, Mario Vega navigated poverty and gang violence on his way to the U.S. Air Force and to his job today as sports program coordinator at Little Village’s New Life Center.
Three years ago, unloading supplies for the food pantry at New Life Community Church, he heard gang gunfire and hit the ground. Afterward, running over to aid a 20-year-old male who was struck and bleeding profusely, left him deeply impacted.
Inspired by the incident, Vega, 30, established a boxing program offering Little Village youth an alternative to gangs and drugs. He’s one of five Chicagoans profiled in “Beacons of Hope — Stories of Strength from Chicago,” a new documentary that will air nationally March 15 on the Audience Network.
Vega’s offshoot of the Chicago Youth Boxing Club was started in the basement of La Villita Community Church at 23rd and Millard, spawning some winning boxers, but more importantly, keeping many youth off the streets.
“I grew up boxing. It was a great outlet. It helped me stay out of trouble and taught me discipline, so I reached out to community groups and told them I wanted to engage with the youth, using boxing,” said Vega, who still lives in Little Village.
“The late, legendary ‘Pastor Vic’ [Rodriguez], who passed last week, opened up his doors for me to be able to do that.”
Vega and four others profiled were whittled from 10 beacons chosen by youth in 19 Chicago neighborhoods. The areas are home to 28 percent of the city’s population, yet accounted for 72 percent of homicides in 2017.
The documentary is part of telecommunications giant AT&T’s year-old Believe Chicago initiative tackling gun violence and unemployment in those 19 neighborhoods.
The film was screened this week at Kennedy-King College, where AT&T national CEO John Donovan flew in to announce the initiative has in just a year reached several milestones — its 500th employee hired from the 19 neighborhoods and $3 million in donations to community groups in those areas.
And on Monday, the company opens its very first store ever in Englewood, moving into the final retail space at Englewood Square.
That’s the nearly 2 1/2-year-old mall at 63rd and Halsted with its inner-city anomaly anchor Whole Foods. When they opened in September 2016, neither the upscale grocer nor the 10-store strip mall — the first major private commercial investment in the area in decades — were given huge success odds.
But Whole Foods’ homesteading, and the efforts of mall developer/manager DL3 Realty, have drawn other tenants rarely seen in inner-city communities — PNC Bank, Starbuck’s, Chipotle — and spurred other major investment in the periphery, as crime rates have fallen in the area. Shootings and homicides in the Englewood Police District in 2017 were down nearly 50 percent over 2016.
“That’s a dramatic drop,” said Leon Walker, managing partner of DL3 Realty. “And all of that was on the heels of our opening in October 2016. That’s what we call the ripple effect. AT&T is the perfect tenant to finish off the Englewood Square Development. Their commitment will help encourage others to invest in Englewood.”
AT&T’s inner-city employees, who know firsthand the poverty and gun violence plaguing some South and West Side communities, helped create the Believe Chicago initiative, now being used by AT&T as a template in other urban areas nationwide.
To reach its hiring goals, the initiative is working to assess and address potential workforce barriers in the 19 neighborhoods: Austin, West Garfield Park, North Lawndale, West Englewood, Englewood, Humboldt Park, East Garfield Park, South Lawndale, New City, Lower West Side, Gage Park, Chicago Lawn, Auburn Gresham, Roseland, Chatham, Greater Grand Crossing, Washington Park, South Shore and South Chicago.
The initiative hopes to prove jobs a weapon against violence.
“These milestones have been reached as a collaborative with our employees and outreach with community leaders in these areas,” said Eileen Mitchell, president of AT&T Illinois.
“We’re extremely proud of opening a store in Englewood — the heart of Believe Chicago’s 19 neighborhoods. And ‘Beacons of Hope’ is our effort to change some of the negative narratives about Chicago due to the gun violence and tell the good stories about people who live in these neighborhoods.”
The four others profiled are:
- LaToya Winters, a youth specialist, mentor and social worker at Marillac St. Vincent Family Services in East Garfield Park.
- Deanna Hallagan, director of youth programs at Marillac St. Vincent Family Services in East Garfield Park.
- Deborah Leverette, pastor of Greater House of Prayer Church in Pullman, serving families in Roseland.
- Rev. Michael Pfleger, activist pastor of St. Sabina Catholic Church in Auburn-Gresham.
Vega said he is committed to the youth of Little Village — where a third of the population lives below poverty and only 10 percent have more than a high school education, and that being included in the documentary is “humbling.”
“I grew up in Little Village, went to Curie High, faced the same socio-economic struggles and violence as these youth. What I like is that the documentary shows Chicago isn’t just full of violence. There’s a lot of people doing a lot of positive things,” he said. “And I prefer to focus on that.”