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Story Retrieval Date: 4/17/2015 12:19:31 PM CST

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By Marissa Mitchell and Jessica Binsch/MEDILL

The Gads Hill Center serves youth despite violence and funding cuts.

Program's struggle for funding as fierce as its battle to keep teens safe

by Jessica Binsch and Marissa Mitchell
Oct 28, 2009


By Jessica Binsch/MEDILL

Sisters Nydia (left) and Alondra Garza  complete homework during an after-school program at the Gads Hill Center. The center serves at-risk youth in Pilsen, Little Village and Back of the Yards communities.

For Nydia Garza, afternoon activities at the Gads Hill Center can range from doing homework to tracing her roots. With the help of Christina Rodriguez, she wrote an essay Tuesday about her great-grandfather. 

Garza lives in Pilsen, a predominantly Hispanic community in southwest Chicago. There and in the surrounding neighborhoods of Little Village and Back of the Yards, teens can face violence. Last week 17-year-old Gamaliel Toscano was shot and killed in Back of the Yards on his way from school. 

“Violence is something that a lot of these students are exposed to from a young age,” said Rodriguez, coordinator of the Teen Connection program at Gads Hill. “A lot of them strive to not go to the neighborhood high schools because they’re gang ridden, so there is a lot of violence and drugs there.”

Staff members at the center see their place as a safe haven after school and on weekends. Teen Connection volunteers from across Chicago help more than 25 students through high school.

Under a new program at Chicago Public Schools, 200 at-risk teens are set to receive similar mentorship in an effort to curb youth violence. But as Chicago is looking for new ways to fight violence, established programs like the Gads Hill Center are fighting funding cuts.

“We always struggle with funding,” said Xavier Salvado, program coordinator at the center. “Investing in safe places like this one would address at least part of the problem” of youth violence.

Public funding and private donations have decreased by a third, he said. As a result, the center has had to close its doors on two Saturdays out of the month.

Community group Mujeres Latinas en Acción also offers mentoring programs, with a focus on teenage girls. During the week they provide academic assistance, sex education and relationship workshops.

“The program is here because the community needs it,” said Alma Lopez, the youth program director. “Especially during this economy that’s what we’re here for.”

Mujeres Latinas, too, is struggling in the economic downturn as donations dwindle. Almost a year ago, funding was intact. Now, organization members are applying for more public money to support their services.

The Resurrection Project in Pilsen works to improve education and foster community development. The program has a solid funding base due to rent collected through their affordable housing units. 

But the threat of violence persists. For their basketball league’s summer games, they had to enlist police protection.

“In some cases, gang members swarm around the Resurrection basketball league games” to recruit the teenagers, Ryan Kelsey of the Resurrection Project said.

Under such conditions, Gads Hill’s Salvado said, communities, schools and families must work together to save youth.

“CPS is a part of the community,” he said. “So even if the school is the best place on earth, if you step outside and the community is not the same way, then you’re still going to have that.”

When students have educational opportunities, they are better poised to rise above the turmoil, added Rodriguez.

“They’re holding a key,” she said. “If they do well in school, this life doesn’t have to be their life.”