Chicago teens do have places to go this summer

Here’s a simple call-to-action for parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and others: Ask a child or teen what they are doing once school lets out, then help them apply to one of the city’s many programs.

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Young people from After School Matters participate in a dance program at Gallery 37.

Young people from After School Matters participate in a dance program at Gallery 37 in 2016.

After School Matters

As we head into summer, Chicago teenagers are once again getting a bad rap and paying a huge price for it. It happens each year as the weather heats up and the school year winds down: some local youth, without productive outlets, get together and make headlines.

The large gatherings downtown — like the one that, tragically, led to one teen being shot and killed in Millennium Park, allegedly by another teen — are not acceptable. And unfortunately, they aren’t surprising either.

While this was happening before the pandemic, the situation is worse now with added risk factors

Just like the rest of us, teens want to get out of the house. Just like us, they need social connection. Add in a growing youth mental health crisis, with anxiety, depression, and suicide rates all on the rise — plus increased financial and food insecurity in families due to the pandemic — and it’s hard to be hopeful that this will be a peaceful summer for Chicago youth.

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Opinion

As long-time Chicago journalist Justin Kaufmann recently wrote in his column, “Chicago continues to tell teenagers where they can’t go. Maybe it’s time to tell them where they can.”

Bingo. This is where we all can help.

Our organizations have, combined, more than 150 years operating after school and summer programs for kids and teens in Chicago. Time and time again, we’ve seen how with a little support — whether it’s one program, one caring mentor, or simply a helping hand — young people open up, see their self-worth, and then thrive.

Ours are just three of countless youth-serving organizations, large and small, all across Chicago, that will offer kids and teens safe spaces this summer in programs that will change the trajectory of their next few months and help them shape a bright future.

Many of these programs are free. In some, youth can even get paid to participate, including the city’s One Summer Chicago initiative that pays up to $15 an hour and provides a financial incentive to take part in productive, safe, enjoyable activities.

Applications are open now for literally hundreds of summer programs offering much more than playing soccer, learning to code or participating in a social justice project. Kids and teens can walk away with real life and career skills, new and unexpected friendships, a mentor in their instructor, and a more positive outlook on their lives and goals.

That last piece is particularly important. After the last two-plus years, we can all relate to the stress that comes with thinking about the future. That feeling is especially compounded for Black and Brown youth right now, whose communities have been disproportionately hurt by the pandemic and by decades of neighborhood disinvestment.

In a recent survey, nearly 80% of Chicago teens who have participated in After School Matters said the programs made them feel hopeful about their future. Among youth in Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago, 68% say their club saved their life. And 89% of youth from Union League Boys and Girls Clubs feel safer at the club than anywhere else they hang out.

Plus, students who participate in high-quality out-of-school-time programs have higher school attendance and graduation rates, as well as better college enrollment and persistence rates.

Look, parenting kids and teens is hard, even in the best of times, let alone coming out of a global pandemic that has worn us all down. All parents need more support, especially these days. While parents have a responsibility to set a positive example and help put their child on a path toward success, we all have a role to play in curbing violence and closing the opportunity gap for kids who live in neighborhoods weighed down by generations of disinvestment. These are complex issues, and no one can take them on alone.

So, here’s a simple call-to-action for parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and other caregivers who have kids and teens in their lives. One question could help change the path of their summer and their future: Ask that child or teen what they are doing once school lets out, then help them apply to one or more programs that will teach them a new skill, give them a safe space to go, and help give their summer purpose.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com

Mary Ellen Caron is CEO of After School Matters. Mimi LeClair is president and CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago. Mary Ann Mahon-Huels is the president and CEO of the Union League Boys & Girls Clubs in Chicago.

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