A Chicago teen was on hand when an anti-violence mural was painted in Lawndale. A day later he was a victim of a mass shooting

The READI Chicago program tries to get high-risk Lawndale residents out of danger with therapy and job training, but the threat of violence still looms large in the lives of participants.

SHARE A Chicago teen was on hand when an anti-violence mural was painted in Lawndale. A day later he was a victim of a mass shooting

A new mural in North Lawndale celebrates “Real talk. Real love. Real hope.”

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Over a few days last week, the promise and peril of life in Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods came into stark relief for participants and staff of the READI Chicago program.

Tuesday, with cheerful officers from Chicago Police Department’s 10th District and the furry mascots of Chicago’s major sports teams looking on, READI participants painted the program’s slogans — REAL TALK. REAL LOVE. REAL HOPE. BE BOLD — in 3-foot-tall letters on a mural behind St. Agatha’s Catholic Church in North Lawndale.

Wednesday, a READI participant who had been at the event the day before was among the eight people wounded in a pair of mass shootings that took place just blocks from the church. Fifteen-year-old Damarion Benson was killed and two others wounded when a gunman opened fire near the intersection of Douglas Boulevard and Christiana Avenue around 6 p.m. Five more people were wounded in a chaotic shootout on Douglas near Ridgeway Avenue, including a 19-year-old who was in critical condition with a gunshot wound to the chest.

The READI teen suffered a gunshot wound to the arm and graze wound to the head, but was later released from the hospital, organizers said.

But when READI’s Thursday morning therapy class began, the teen gamely logged onto the online session. READI organizers, wary of the danger of being on the street in the aftermath of the shooting, had canceled in-person classes that day.

“This is the population, the people we are trying to help, the ones who are at the greatest risk,” said Senior Director Eddie Bocanegra, who was among the city leaders who met at St. Agatha’s with Merrick Garland during the U.S. Attorney General’s visit to Chicago to announce a new federal gun violence task force.

READI is one of a growing network of anti-violence programs in the city that targets residents — mostly young, Black men involved in gangs — who are at the greatest risk of being shot, or shooting someone else. On average, READI Chicago participants have been arrested 18 times, and three-quarters of them have been victims of violent crime. They are 45 times more likely to be shot than the average Chicagoan, READI officials said.

The 12-month program begins with 100 hours of cognitive behavioral therapy, paid employment as READI outreach workers, and preparation for employment. Despite COVID restrictions that made near impossible the one-on-one outreach and the “relentless engagement” that are key program features, more than 600 participants have graduated, with more than 70% finding employment. A 2019 report found the program had reduced participants’ likelihood of getting shot by 32%, and 80% avoid arrest or charges for violent crime while enrolled. 

There are about 60 people involved currently, down from about 130 in 2019 after participation fell off dramatically during the pandemic.

Participants spent months planning the design with artist Haman Cross III, alongside their usual slate of cognitive behavioral therapy sessions and job training intended to steer participants from high-risk lives on the street into steady jobs, said Eddie Bocanegra, senior director of the program.


Artist Haman Cross III helped designed the mural. Tuesday, July 20, 2021.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

“Hearing the young men go through the planning, sharing anecdotes from their lives, was heartbreaking at times, but also so rejuvenating,” said Bocanegra, a 45-year-old former gang member who grew up a few blocks away from St. Agatha’s in South Lawndale.

“They were really proud to be able to tell their story.”

That story includes a few tragic chapters. The mural, which sits outside one of the classrooms used for READI classes at St. Agatha’s, includes the names of eight “fallen soldiers”— program participants that have been killed since READI began in 2017, including two who died this spring.

Bernida Davenport-McWhite, known as “Mrs. B” or “Mama B” to READI participants, has a locket with a picture of Devon Taylor, one of her former charges who was killed two years ago as he headed home from morning classes.

“It is a daily struggle not to relive those memories,” Davenport-McWhite said. “These boys have seen a lot of loss in their lives.”

After mugging for photos Tuesday with the mascots of the Bulls, Blackhawks, Bears, Cubs and Sox — all part of program sponsor Sports Alliance — 24-year-old Darryl Robinson said the program had helped him get his life on track after he picked up a gun charge.

“It started off just as a way to get off house arrest,” Robinson said. He began the program skeptical of components like cognitive behavioral therapy but quickly came around. 

“I actually liked the cognitive behavioral therapy. It helps me maneuver like I want to in situations.”

Program staff provided him and his girlfriend with baby supplies and groceries during the pandemic, even as classes moved to the internet.

“I was ugly when I came in here. … I probably would have been thrown under the jail,” said Robinson, who said he’s assembling his transcripts in order to enroll at Chicago State University. “You come around when you see that they don’t want to do nothing but help you.”


The mural was dedicated Tuesday.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

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