This new piece in our Community Voices series comes from Mary Gomez, the Programs Supervisor for the After-School Program at Casa Romero in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago. Mary has been with the After-School Program since 2002, when she first started as a part-time tutor while she was in college. During her time at Casa Romero, Mary has worked with hundreds of students ages 6 to 18. In this piece, she reflects on how she and her staff help young people process neighborhood violence, and what they’re doing to end that violence with education, respect, community service, and hope.
There’s been a lot of violence—there’s always violence in the Back of the Yards community, and a lot of people see only that when they look at our neighborhood. People are afraid to visit; they have this idea of the Back of the Yards, but it’s much more than that. We’re much more than that. So we try to give our kids the opportunity to show people what we’re really about here. Education. Peace. Respect. Taking care of each other.
Our anti-violence lessons start with teaching teamwork through group work. We really stress getting along with each other, having a mutual respect for each other, and an understanding. The students don’t get much of those lessons in school because it’s hard for our teachers, who are already doing so much just teaching the academic subjects. So we start off with teaching responsibility, learning respect for one another, and learning about the community and how we can help. We plan activities that will help bring the community together and keep all the young people busy in a positive way. All of these issues are connected to violence; someone who respects others and feels a responsibility to the community doesn’t participate in violence.
When violence does strike, when we have shootings and people are killed, the effect is pretty immediate. Because of the closeness of the community and the fact that everyone knows one another—whether it’s a neighbor or a classmate or they just know the family from Holy Cross—it definitely has an effect. At Casa Romero, we try to engage the kids. We ask them, “How are you?”, “What are your thoughts?”, and maybe have them reflect on and write about the violence and what happened, or just have a conversation about it before getting started on homework, tutoring, and other life skills.
For example, last summer there was a shooting in the neighborhood at Cornell Park. That was really a scary thing, especially for the kids. They were scared to go outside. We tried to give them the opportunity to talk about it because sometimes they don’t get that opportunity in school or at home to talk about their feelings. It’s just as simple as that. We had them write about it. We had the youngest ones draw pictures of what their hopes and dreams are, what their goals are. We have all the students do that regularly, actually.
We ask the students at the beginning of the year to write or draw what their dreams and goals are. And then at the end of the year we have them do it again and compare that with the beginning of the year to see what they’ve accomplished. Setting goals and having dreams are incredibly important for all kids, but especially kids who are faced with violence like this every day.
And the things they write are amazing; so many of them are thinking about college! College is a HUGE thing in this community, largely in part because we push it so hard in all our programs, but especially in the After-School Program. Unfortunately, a lot of our students don’t feel like they can pay for college. They’re worried about providing for their families, because all of them are from low-income families. So we work with them on scholarships and other financial aid. But just getting them thinking about college is huge. It gives them the opportunity to look past all those obstacles to see what’s possible, what they can do. It gives them hope, and hope like that is incredibly, amazingly powerful.
A donation to the After-School Program allows Mary and her staff to continue to guide children and teens away from violence and toward education. A onetime gift of $27 funds the salary of a tutor and mentor for one day. Make a significant impact in the Back of the Yards and give today.