A phone call from a friend to meet at a church basement changed the trajectory of Doug Low’s life.
“The irony of all of this is that I got started in this because the gentleman”— Kidz Express founder Duane Ehresman — “who founded the program called me up and said, ‘I’m in the basement of this church. I have 20 kids with me, and I need help this one time,’ ” said Low, who later became executive director and vice president of Kidz Express. “This ‘one time,’ 20 years later, has become the major focus of what my life has become.”
The “major focus” of Low’s life is Kidz Express, an Austin nonprofit organization that runs on a mentor-student system in which kids between the ages of 5 and 14 are provided with the space to display leadership and guidance via after-school programs, cross-age peer-mentoring programs and summer mentoring programs specializing in academic enrichment, health and wellness, athletics and art, among other subjects.
Kidz Express, founded in 1999, outgrew its original location at 342 S. Laramie Ave. and has been at 5221 W. Congress Pkwy. since 2015.
The program operates in an area where violence and poverty are prevalent.
“We found that a significant number of our kids were food insecure,” Low said. “And providing them dinner became a huge support for them. One thing that we’ve always focused on is academics for the first hour of every single day. You come in, and you do your homework, and you get tutored. And if you choose to tell us that you don’t want to do that, we literally send you home.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kidz Express, like many other people-powered organizations, has found ways to be creative while serving the communities it supports by supplying laptops to students, giving away food, limiting the number of staff and students in its building, and working with other organizations to bridge the gap.
“It’s been an unbelievable challenge,” Low said. “We’re using a hybrid in-person/virtual program to manage this whole pandemic, especially from an academic perspective. And clearly this is subject to change as we monitor the status of the pandemic in Chicago.”
Kidz Express has put down roots in the city’s West Side communities while sending its alumni on to colleges and universities, including Howard University, Morehouse College, Western Illinois University and the University of Illinois.
It also tries to address the area’s high unemployment by hiring people from the neighborhoods surrounding Kidz Express.
Some of its career-minded former students later return to help out. Kidz Express mentor Marco Dodd is one of the program’s success stories. Dodd, 28, a Chicago Public Schools math teacher, came to the program as a 10-year-old who got his first job at Kidz Express at 16 as a junior mentor. Dodd was looking for two traits from an after-school program: consistency and structure.
“Me and my friends used to go to a few of the after-school programs in the neighborhood, the park district’s [programs], and those programs always last maybe six, eight weeks, at the most,” Dodd said. “And then they pack it up, and they ship in a new program in a couple of months, and the programs in that neighborhood didn’t last very long.
“As a kid growing up in the ’hood, I think you’re always looking over your shoulder. I think that’s the mindset a lot of the kids have — until a one-day type of thing a week turned into two days. And eventually, Kidz Express bought a building within the community.”
To Low, creating opportunities for children who wouldn’t otherwise have them is the goal of Kidz Express.
“I’ve lost kids to the streets, and I’ve been to nine funerals of kids who’ve been shot,” he said. “We lose kids to the streets. We lose kids to the gangs. But we also have a lot who didn’t join gangs.
“We just do the best we can. You do the best that you can and hope for the best. And, if we’re being completely honest, isn’t that what all parents do?”