The smell of popcorn, the promise of Santa and bags of free groceries greeted dozens of families who ventured out to West Town Academy on Dec. 17. The holiday giveaway offered clothing, toys, $100 gift cards and resources for those needing help with rent and utilities.
The West Side site, hosted by the Alternative School Network (ASN), was one of two that sought to help families during the holiday season. The other was at the Progressive Leadership Academy on the South Side.
The Westside festivities featured youth ambassadors ages 16 to 24 from ASN member schools — West Town Academy, Pedro Albizu Campos, Progressive Leadership, Latino Youth High School and Aspira Antonia Pantoja — who made sure families felt support.
The Ambassadorship is a year-long student leadership program developed by ASN’s Community Youth Employment Program, part of a joint initiative with Critical Health Network and the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services.
“The kids wanted to make sure families had a good vacation because of so many things going on,” said Jessica Taylor, director of the Critical Health Network, a program designed to provide emergency care to the city’s communities hardest hit by the pandemic.
Each Youth Ambassador helps up to six families in the Belmont-Craigin, Englewood, Pilsen, Little Village, Humboldt Park and Hermosa areas. Ninety youth ambassadors from five schools visit families daily or weekly to ensure their food and shelter needs are met, offering bi-weekly groceries, rental assistance, utility assistance and health services. Taylor said ambassadors spend 40 hours a month helping community members and are compensated by Youth Corps.
“They started in 2021, seeing that there was and continues to be such a need, they’re continuing to push through,” Taylor said. “The festive events took place thanks to the students themselves; they saw a need and advocated for their clients.”
Taylor said the students did everything for the events, from organizing and promotion to inviting families, providing handouts and helping with events. Yvette Hernandez, 21, a mother of two and a recent graduate of a Latin American youth high school, was there to help the families because she knows “what it’s like to struggle.”
“I know when it comes to the holidays, times are tough. And this year has been tough for everyone,” Hernandez said. “One minute they’re fine and the next minute they’re down and there’s nothing for them to run to. They either lost a family member or lost their job because they got sick and couldn’t work anymore.”
Hernandez joined the ambassador program a few months ago because she enjoys helping others, putting smiles on their faces, helping people warm their hearts and making children happy. “Those who have children, they call and say thank you for another plate or light in their place.”
Taylor said ASN students have experienced hardships themselves, including homelessness and raising teenagers, which has led to more dropouts. She said it was not uncommon for young people re-enrolling in ASN schools to spend time outside.
Lackawha Lafayette, 21, spent her later teenage years sleeping on couches and in cars when she lost her mother to breast cancer in 2018. The 2020 West Town Academy graduate has been a youth ambassador in the community since the program’s inception. And she plans to stay with him until she turns 24. Her first child is due in March, and she’s ready to move into her West Side apartment with her baby’s father this month. Lafayette believes her experience makes her a greater asset to the families she works with.
“I know what it’s like to go days without food, to be homeless and to sleep in houses,” she said. “Having gone through this, I feel like they can relate to me better because I have experience.”
Community Youth Ambassadors helped more than 480 families of color with holiday gifts. For Thanksgiving, families received turkey or ham and all the fixings, sponsored by Mariano’s, Walmart and DoorDash, with financial support from the Department of Family and Support Services’ Chicago Youth Support Division.
While students earn degrees and develop their leadership, communication, advocacy, problem solving and conflict skills through the program, ASN hopes the combination will equip them to transition into the workforce, college or career.
Hernandez admits her mindset shifted from money to books when she decided to help members of the community, a mindset that brings her hope. Hernandez, a Back of the Yards resident, said everyone needs someone to talk to and a shoulder to lean on.
“Keep your head up,” she tells other Chicagoans. “If anyone needs help, I’m ready to help in any way I can.” With a high school diploma, Hernandez is looking forward to attending Malcolm X College to pursue a law degree or nursing degree.
Lafayette is interested in a career as a social worker.
“I have a different outlook on life,” she said. “It seems to me that every day I am becoming more and more like my mother. Because everything she wanted to do but didn’t have the chance to do, I feel like I’m doing it.”