Creating the Good: A father who turned loss into hope

Shemuel Sanders suffered a tragic loss and channeled his life-changing experience into an opportunity to help others.

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Celebrating Chicago's Black history by highlighting impactful stories from unique perspectives. Sponsored by AARP Illinois.

Shemuel Sanders suffered a tragic loss last June when his daughter, Shemilah, became the victim of a fatal shooting in their hometown of Decatur, Illinois.

Sanders, who often served as an informal mentor to youth in the Decatur middle school where he works, felt compelled, now more than ever, to do more.

“I never want another parent to have to feel what I’m feeling,” says Sanders, who does landscaping work during the summers, “so I started small — pulling a few young men into my landscaping work and paying them for their time.”

That is how the seeds of Shemilah’s Outreach Center were sown.

Once the community heard about what Sanders was doing, his phone wouldn’t stop ringing with calls from parents and young men who wanted to be involved.

In just a few weeks, his landscaping program, which started with 10 young men, quickly grew to 70 — the maximum number of participants that donations to the program could support.

When they returned to school in the fall, Sanders refocused his outreach on helping the men navigate e-learning, recruiting a team of retired teachers who volunteered their time to help students who were struggling outside of a traditional school setting.


Provided photo.

This year, the program has grown to include 200 young men and women and many more offerings for the youth, who can now learn forensic science taught by the local police department, take music or dance classes, and of course, continue to participate in the popular landscaping program.

The only limitation to the growth of the program is funding, and Sanders continues to fundraise to be able to support more participants.

“I’ve had to turn youth away, and that kills me,” says Sanders. “I believe I could easily reach 1000 youth with the community’s support – there is that much need for this work.”

To learn more or find out ways you can support Shemilah’s Outreach Center, visit

And to find volunteer opportunities in your community, visit

To hear Shemuel’s story and more stories like this, subscribe to the “Creating the Good with AARP Illinois” podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

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