Invest more in kids today so they don’t become tomorrow’s headlines

The recent fatal carjacking in Hyde Park raises a question: What investments could we have made in the crime’s youthful that would have prevented this tragedy?

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A women places a lit candle next to a memorial set up for Keith Cooper at Kimbark Plaza at 53rd Street and Kimbark Avenue on July 16. Cooper was punched in the head and killed during a attempted carjacking.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

We’ve all read the headlines, seen the news clips, and received the Twitter notifications. After major holiday weekends like Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, there are the frightening statistics showing young people across our city are committing crimes at an alarming rate. 

Earlier this month, Frank Harris, 18, and Dushawn Williams, 17, were accused of killing a veteran during an attempted carjacking in broad daylight at Kimbark Plaza, where my business is located.

Williams had his first run-in with the criminal justice system at the age of 12.

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This case hit close to home, both literally and figuratively. It got me thinking: What investments could we have made — as individuals, as a community, and as a city — in Harris when he was a 12-year-old boy to prevent the events that unfolded in the subsequent years and led to this tragedy?

Beyond that, what could we have done just 10 years ago to set then-7-year-old Williams on the right track and prevent his encounter with law enforcement in the first place?

Alternatively, we may ask ourselves: “What investments did we choose not to make, to forego, to leave off the table, that reduced these boys’ potential so drastically?”

As both a business owner and a civic leader in my community, I see how, oftentimes, the onus is placed on the parents of troubled youth when it comes to accounting for the misbehavior of their children. And while I agree that responsibility lies with the parents, it also lies with the support systems that surround them. No parent in Chicago is raising their child in a vacuum. 

The success and development of each and every young person growing up on the South and West sides — and everywhere else, for that matter — is directly correlated to the support systems and networks available to them and their families. These systems run the gamut from accessible healthcare and safe public parks to community sports leagues, engaging after-school programs and quality school instruction.

According to testimony presented by the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago to the Illinois State Board of Education in 2018, funding for after-school programs for Illinois youth does not meet demand. Despite a potential savings of $9 per every dollar invested in such programs from increasing kids’ academic and professional prospects, as well as the reduction of juvenile crime and delinquency, these crucial programs remain underfunded. 

Data from The Afterschool Alliance’s 2020 report corroborates this, showing that unmet demand for afterschool programs in Illinois is at an all-time high.

Ironically, Harris — who allegedly threw the fatal punch that killed Cooper in the Hyde Park carjacking attempt — had once been involved with the violence prevention youth group Good Kids Mad City.

But GKMC was founded only in 2018.  Like any investment, time is required to reap a return. And most certainly, we have the power to start making the right investments today.

Our children are valuable, and we need to see them all as worthy of investment. If we don’t, the seven- and eight-year-olds of today run the risk of becoming the unfavorable headlines of tomorrow.

Jonathan Swain is president and CEO of LINK Unlimited Scholars. He is also president and principal of Kimbark Beverage Shoppe.

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