Investing in Educational and Labor Development for Youth to Prevent Violence in Chicago

SGA Youth & Family Services runs programs sharing the goal of steering youth away from the risk of violence, thereby fostering individual development and community well-being and safety. Highlights include their safe space programs for youth, paid internships for young people to learn working in local businesses, and micro-grants to promote youth program development in underserved Chicago neighborhoods

Lily Flores is a program coordinator at SGA Youth & Family Services. (Belhú Sanabria / La Raza)

Lily Flores is a program coordinator at SGA Youth & Family Services. (Belhú Sanabria / La Raza) Crédito: Impremedia

Transforming the neglected neighborhoods of the Chicago metropolitan area into healthy, progressing, and violence-free communities is the goal pursued by a local nonprofit organization for over a century. SGA Youth & Family Services (SGA) was founded in 1911 and has a long history of assisting individuals facing significant challenges to achieve their fullest potential.

SGA operates across the Chicago metropolitan area and its surrounding suburbs, serving children, youth, and families each year at its various locations, in schools, and in city hospitals. This nonprofit organization has developed an innovative and proven method called ‘Cycle of Opportunity,’ a system aimed at breaking the cycle of adversity and offering families the opportunities they need to change their lives and communities.

The model focuses on four service areas: parenting, early childhood education, educational support, and workforce development. These services are key factors in preventing infant mortality, violence, school dropout, and unemployment, according to its organizers.

SGA partners with Chicago Public Schools to help youth succeed, providing services such as drug and alcohol education; mentoring; individual, group, and family counseling; gang diversion; parent education; case management; classroom support, and crisis intervention.

As part of educational support, the ‘Higher Sights’ program offers college preparation and retention services for high-achieving student leaders, including youth who may be involved in a gang or the juvenile justice system.

Mentors play a key role by working with high school students to develop personalized college action plans, in addition to helping them learn how to find and use support resources.

SGA works in two programs in the realm of workforce development: one is the safe spaces program, where youth feel comfortable participating without the threat of violence. The other is the internship program for youth aged 16 to 24 living in high-risk communities in Chicago, such as Little Village, Gage Park, Pilsen, Back of the Yards, Brighton Park, Lawndale, New City, Chicago Lawn, Fuller Park, East Garfield, Englewood, Grand Crossing, Humboldt Park, Roseland, and nearby communities.

Eligible youth for the internships will be hired by companies or businesses at the end of the training process, either for full-time or part-time work. Businesses offer jobs in numerous fields: pharmacies, grocery stores, arts, marketing, health prevention, construction, finance, restaurants, community organizations, warehouses, beauty salons, and mechanic shops, among others.

Interested youth can apply throughout the year. The training paid by SGA lasts at least three months and 15 hours per week. Most Chicago youth participating in this program are Latinos (40%), African Americans (40%), and from other ethnicities (20%). All SGA programs and services are offered free of charge.

A talk with youth about SGA’s programs, developed thanks to federal, state, and City of Chicago funds. (Belhú Sanabria / La Raza)
Crédito: Impremedia

Help to Obtain Employment and Move Away from Violence

Social networks are increasingly used by youth to seek employment or to inform themselves about events not covered in traditional news media but occurring in their community.

Pablo Torres, a 24-year-old resident of Chicago Lawn, a southwest neighborhood of Chicago, learned about SGA programs at its Brighton Park location through Facebook and Instagram platforms. Torres filled out his application to enroll in the program for youth aged 16 to 24. For this program, the youngsters do not need to have any experience; what is required is that they are willing to work and learn new skills. The internship lasts three to four months.

According to Lily Flores, a program coordinator with SGA, the strongest initiatives they have for community youth are the internships: “the beautiful thing is that, as they are youngsters aged 16 to 24, the 16-year-olds are still in school, and they find the schedule that best fits with the student’s schedule, and they do the same for those who are older.”

Often, youngsters are eager to work, but many places do not hire them due to lack of experience. This program opens doors for them to gain experience and, depending on how they stand out at work, the business owner will decide if they stay on working for them, Flores explained to La Raza.

“The youngsters come, sign up, and tell us what area they are interested in, not just as a job but as a profession. Anyone can have a job, but what we want is to give them a trade, a career. Once they have applied with us, we find them a job according to what they are looking for,” said Flores.

Mostly, the youngsters live in a community where resources are not fully available to them.

According to Flores, the program is developed in groups throughout the year, lasting from three to six months. “ It all depends on the type of contract one has with the company or the person who will accept the youth to work with them.”

Pablo Torres’ mentor helped him create his resume and search for employment, guiding him on how to dress for a job interview. “Such small things can have a very big impact on these young people’s social lives,” said Lily Flores.

The programs focus on providing youth and students with skills to seek employment, contributing to violence prevention because work keeps youth busy developing their full potential and, therefore, away from the streets. “All our programs include that portion of getting them off the street and away from the risk of violence,” emphasized Flores.

Griselda Gómez considered her mother her best friend, her inspiration; she walked and talked with her all the time. Gómez enjoyed sports and was a good student, but her life changed when her mother passed away.

She was emotionally impacted, didn’t want to do anything, became depressed, left school, and as a result of street fights, was arrested by the police and referred to SGA Youth & Family Services.

Later, Gómez returned to school to finish her studies at an alternative high school, while SGA, through its programs, successfully helped her obtain a job at a local pet store.

Gómez wants to be a lawyer in the future. “I want to be independent. SGA changed my life for the better,” she mentioned.

A video on SGA’s website features the testimony of Gómez and other young people who have succeeded thanks to the support of this organization.

Internship Requirements

The requirements to participate in the internship program are being between 16 to 24 years old, having a state ID and proof of authorization to work in the United States, and residing in Little Village, Gage Park, Pilsen, Back of the Yards, Brighton Park, Lawndale, New City, Chicago Lawn, Fuller Park, East Garfield, Englewood, Grand Crossing, Humboldt Park, Roseland, and nearby communities.

Opportunities to Work with SGA

Once the youth complete the program, the coordinators have observed the participants’ growth and know who stood out. This way, they are given the opportunity to work with SGA, if they wish. When Pablo Torres finished his four-month internship, he was offered employment with the organization, and today he works as a health promoter at SGA.

Torres is a shy boy, but precise in his statement: “the community should have more programs like the ones SGA has because they help prevent violence and get youth off the streets.”

A cheerful, charismatic, and extroverted young woman is Leslie Mosso, 20. She moved from California to Chicago and lives in the same neighborhood as her friend Pablo Torres, who told her about the programs at SGA where he works and encouraged her to participate last year.

Both Mosso and Torres took part in the workforce development program. Currently, both are employed by SGA and work as health promoters. Mosso said that as part of her job, information is provided for renewing Medicaid cards, free classes for diabetes prevention are offered, and informative events on first aid, among other services, are developed.

For recently arrived Venezuelan migrants, basic personal hygiene items are provided “and we offer information at events about places or programs that can help them,” explained the young woman to La Raza.

“Many of our students maybe didn’t want to continue with their high school studies, but the beauty of our programs is that you don’t need to have finished high school to participate in the workforce development program. Our focus is trying to get them back into studying so that they can get their GED. To be an employee with SGA, you do need to have your high school diploma or a GED,” specified Flores. “The youth need to know that they can set foot in the door and continue to climb in whatever they want to be in the future,” Flores noted.

Youth participate in the SGA Youth & Family Services of Chicago internship program. (Courtesy of SGA)
Crédito: Cortesía

Seeking More Businesses for Internships

SGA organizers are looking to collaborate with more businesses. They want businesses to know that they don’t have to pay for the work of the young participants in the program because SGA covers the cost. One of SGA’s challenges has been finding businesses that open the door to students with learning diversity. “There isn’t much to offer, the door doesn’t open very often for that type of help we want to provide. And also [it’s necessary] to know how to treat them because we are humans, and everyone deserves to move forward,” said Flores.

SGA wants to let business owners in the community know that there is help if they need it; they just have to give the youth opportunities to learn with them, for example, how to be a cashier, cook, or waiter. SGA is fully responsible for the person entering their business, from salary to health insurance.

“Many people think it will affect them in terms of the IRS, in terms of health insurance. How are these partnerships made? We go, the specialist goes and checks the place, sits down with the owner for the signature, and in that signature, it declares that SGA is fully responsible for the person who will enter their business,” Flores highlighted.

The programs are developed thanks to federal, state, and City of Chicago funds.

One of SGA’s plans is to have a food pantry, Flores mentioned. “We don’t just work with what we have, but every day we are trying to find something new that benefits the community.”

For Flores, all SGA programs fulfill the same objective of getting the youth off the streets so they are not at risk of violence.

There are many success stories that Flores has seen in the different programs. “We have a girl and a boy who were involved in gangs and came to SGA asking for work through the workforce development program. We trained them, and their lives have changed for the better because now they work with SGA… They no longer have to take public transportation; they were able to buy a car. Their story is very beautiful because they are working with the community.”

More Investment in Youth

On March 8th, Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson, the Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS), and the ‘My CHI. My Future’ (MCMF) initiative announced a micro-grant program to be administered by SGA Youth & Family Services and allocated to local community organizations serving the city’s youth.

In December 2023, DFSS selected SGA through a request for proposals process due to its century-long history of serving Chicago’s youth and families. SGA will be responsible for selecting and managing micro-grants for the selected applicants.

‘My CHI. My Future’ (mychimyfuture.org) is a citywide initiative, not merely a program, that broadly encompasses youth programming, job opportunities, and related activities for Chicago’s youth.

“Investing in our young people is a hallmark of my administration and a priority for me personally,” said Mayor Johnson. “In too many communities in our city, particularly on the South and West Sides, there aren’t enough community-based resources that engage our young people. These micro-grants are a step towards rectifying that disinvestment by providing funding for safe, productive spaces for our young people and for families in their own communities.”

Interested parties can apply for between $2,500 and $10,000 to conduct activities that serve youth outside of school hours. In total, $600,000 in micro-grants will be distributed among the 15 MCMF community strategy regions, with $40,000 designated for each region, as indicated by the Mayor’s office statement.

“As an agency that has served Chicago’s youth for more than 100 years, we are proud to bring this new project to life to help smaller organizations increase positive youth development in their neighborhoods,” said Martha Guerrero, President and CEO of SGA.

Programs must serve youth aged 6 to 24 years old. The grant application period started on March 8th, and the deadline to apply is April 12th, 2024, at 5 pm. For eligibility requirements or any questions about the grants, write to youthmicrogrants@sga-youth.org. More information can also be found on the webpage: sga-youth.org/micro-grants.

Contact SGA Youth & Family Services

Address: 11 E. Adams Suite 240 Chicago, IL 60604

Phone: 312-663-0305

Email: hello@sga-youth.org

Website: sga-youth.org

The production and publication of this story by La Raza have been made possible in part thanks to a grant from the Chicago Community Trust through its Cross Community Impact grant program.

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