Making Waves

by Chris Spence, Director of Youth Engagement at Family Matters

A recent survey by USA Swimming reveals that nearly 40 percent of White children have little-to-no swimming abilities; however that staggering percentage is minuscule when compared to the 70 percent of Black children who cannot swim. Sixty percent of Hispanic children face the same concern.”

The reason for this has nothing to do with physical differences and everything to do with lack of access. Swimming should be a skill offered to everyone. However, it’s a privilege afforded to those who live near a pool or accessible natural body of water, and who can afford to pay for lessons. This excludes inner city children who lack one or both of those opportunities.

The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports drowning as the second leading cause of injury-related death among children under the age of 15. Other studies show that Black children from ages five to 19 drown in swimming pools nearly five times more often than White children. The painful stereotype of African-Americans’ poor swimming skills is one reminder of the trouble a child can face.

Family Connections youth swimming during Spring Break

The world was also reminded in 2010, when six African-American teenagers from Louisiana drowned in Shreveport’s Red River. The teens (from two different families) were found dead after trying to save a friend from rough waters.

Sadly, parents and friends watched in horror as the teens drowned in up to 20 feet of water because they, too, couldn’t swim.

“None of us could swim,” Marilyn Robinson, a friend of the families, told the Shreveport Times, adding that she watched helplessly as the victims went under. “They were yelling, ‘Help me, help me. Somebody please help me.’ There was nothing I could do but watch them drown, one by one.”

A trip to the lake during Family Matters' summer programming

Today, nearly 60 years after the abolishment of Jim Crow laws that kept African Americans from pools and safe swimming places, many children still never get the chance to swim.

When racial integration finally became a mandate, many areas responded by closing public pools so they didn’t have to mix, creating a bigger social divide that transcended race because if you didn’t have the money to go to a country club or private pool, you either didn’t learn to swim, or you tried to learn from an untrained friend or family member in rivers, lakes and even ponds.

That’s the history, and it has undoubtedly contributed to where we are today, to this troubling acceptance that swimming — an important life skill — isn’t for everybody.

The historic separation of African Americans from pools is a problem that affects the elite world of competitive swimming. Despite Simone Manuel’s Olympic gold-medal success last summer, only three of 45 swimmers on the 2016 U.S. Olympic team were black. And out of 107 historically black colleges and universities, not one has a functioning 50-meter pool. Howard University is the only historically black college or university with a competitive swim team. With few role models and scarce opportunities to swim, too many black children see swimming as an inaccessible and uninviting sport.

Making Waves at Family Matters

In addition to safety concerns, an inability to swim bars children from being qualified for a variety of summer employment and career opportunities, ranging from lifeguards to camp counsellors.

This fall, Family Matters Boys 2 Men program, in partnership with the Evanston YMCA, plans to change that with their Making Waves Program.

The eight-week program will kick off in September, and will teach ten young men basic water safety tips and how to swim, which is a priority, especially in the wake of a recent tragic drowning of a neighborhood youth.

Family Matters is incredibly grateful to the YMCA for this opportunity, and plans to continue to expand the program to include additional youth members.


Teens at Work

Recent research suggests that unemployment among Black and Hispanic youth in Chicago is higher than anywhere else in America.

The academic and economic potential in inner city communities and students has been largely unrecognized and untapped.

In response, last summer Family Matters’ Boys 2 Men program (which works with young men ages 12-19), launched an employment initiative, Project RISE, in partnership with the Community Church of Wilmette. Six members of Boys 2 Men were placed in local businesses for a six-week job experience. The program encompassed leadership, financial literacy, resiliency skills training and employment readiness, and was enriched with mock interviews and resume support given by members of the church’s congregation.

This summer the program has expanded to include the Teen Girls – in all, 18 Family Matters teens participated. The youth were employed at:

Charmer’s Cafe
Dollop Coffee
Lady B Botique
Little Beans Cafe
Neon CRM
Sol Cafe
Spex Carwash
Studio 876
Urban Warrior Fitness
V-Tone Fitness
Symphony (center) and Shaniya (second from right) at Sol Cafe.

The experience has been transformative for the teens involved. In addition to learning new skills and gaining work experience, the jobs have instilled a sense of pride in earning money. The employers are sending a strong message to the participants: we value you, we welcome you, and we want to work with you.

Maku and Antwon in the Sol Cafe kitchen.

“Thank you, for the opportunity to be a part of Family Matters Project RISE Internship Program this summer. It was a great learning experience for the cafe and our entire team. Savion is a wonderful young teen to work with. He was timely, friendly to all, completed all tasks asked of him, and took initiative when and where needed. Most importantly it was best getting to know him. Savion is a wonderfully cheerful, smart young fella with lots of amazing interest. We wish him the best in all of his endeavors.Today, we took a field trip to Restaurant Depot and I shared with him how I shop for the cafe. He was amazed at the gigantic warehouse.  It proved to be a good team building experience for us both.”
– Roseanna, Charmers Cafe

The program was a tremendous success:

  • 100% of partners are interested in participating with the program again next summer.
  • 100% of partners were encouraged by the progress the interns made over the summer.
  • 100% of participants learned and developed new skills.
  • 100% of participants believed they are better prepared for school and the world of work as a result of participating in the RISE Program.
  • 100% of participants would like to return to the program next summer.

“Every day I learned something new. Communication with my fellow workers is so important. I learned what it means to be responsible.”
-Savion, 14

One of the unintended benefits of the program is that it became a poverty reduction strategy in the community as all of the students were able to support their families with their resources.

We are incredibly grateful to the Community Church of Wilmette for its generous support of this program, and to the local businesses that have welcomed Family Matters youth this summer.

If you would like to employ Family Matters teens at your business next summer, please contact Chris at chris@familymatterschicago.org.


Alex’s Story

Alex Smith Hickman came to Family Matters in 2004 at the age of 12 and participated in the Teen Boys program until he graduated from high school. “My father knew about Family Matters and put me in the group – it was something for me to do after school instead of being out on the streets.

“I’ve realized how vital Family Matters was to my growing up. We learned art, electronics, business skills, and carpentry – how to work as a team and to communicate with each other. Family Matters helped me, as a young man, to see how I could contribute to the world with the talents that I developed here, in a space where I was with brothers. It brought us together as a family. Dan shaped us into the young men that we are today. I’m so grateful to have this place to come back to. Family Matters will always be like home to me.

“Family Matters showed me how important teamwork is. In this neighborhood, I don’t see a lot of teamwork between younger guys in a productive way. They need direction and guidance. I think there should be a Family Matters in every neighborhood in Chicago. More people should be able to have access to a place like this.”


Family Matters in Bloom

Have you stopped by Family Matters this summer? It’s easy to spot us – we’re the building with the gorgeous garden out front, thanks to long-time Family Matters volunteer Laurel Lawson and Teen Boys Program participant Elijah.

They’ve teamed up for a garden beautifying project, and we’re loving the results! Elijah has been passionate about urban gardening for many years, and Laurel has been meeting with him several times a week to tend to Family Matters’ front yard, which was torn up during some sewer work earlier this year. Through this mentorship, the pair have taken trips together to local gardens, shops and other attractions. The experience has been a rewarding one for both Elijah and Laurel. She says:

Elijah is a joy to know. I think I’m working with a young master gardener – Elijah knows his plants! He often teaches me, and on a field trip to the Chicago Botanic Garden he could identify almost every plant. Wow! He had informed me that it’s not dirt but soil, to be scientifically proper, when I said I like digging in the dirt. Elijah loves to cultivate native plans and would like to develop a butterfly garden to attract monarchs, a very endangered butterfly. 

Laurel and Elijah work a few mornings per week. Many people who pass by will stop to comment about their progress and to chat for awhile. The Teen Boys have also helped out with heavy lifting of mulch and soil bags, and to haul away bags of weeds.

Thank you to Laurel and Elijah for your dedication to this project!

Do you have an area of interest that you’d like to share with our students? Please contact us for information on volunteering at Family Matters.


Verna’s Story

We hope you are on our mailing list and have already read Verna’s inspiring story. For those who missed it, please read on!

When Verna first walked into Family Matters one fallevening in 2002, she felt an instant sense of belonging. Her 11-year old twins, Errol and Errolyn, had heard about the Family Connections after-school program from friends at their new school, and had begged their mom to sign them up. Verna had just moved with her husband and children from Florida, and was looking for a safe place for her children to go after school. What she didn’t realize was how much more than after-school care she would find. “Family Matters became my kids’ family, and mine.”

Family Matters is a place to learn, grow, and experience.”

Verna’s children thrived in their new home at Family Matters. They participated in the Family Connections program and then joined Family Matters’ teen programs. They continued to explore areas of interest, develop their confidence, receive support with schoolwork, and cultivate friendships. Verna shares that, “Because of Family Matters, my kids blossomed into wonderful young people. They were well rounded and never in trouble.”
Errol & Errolyn, during a recent visit to Family Matters

Verna is especially grateful for the opportunities that her children had as a result of their participation in Family Matters programs. “I could never afford to take my children to ballgames or plays or movies. Here at Family Matters, the kids were exposed to so many different things. They took field trips that expanded the kids’ understandings. Then they came home and shared those experiences with us.” Through Family Matters, Errolyn traveled to San Francisco as one of two Chicago Teen Girls Council representatives participating in a National Girls Forum. “To send her away on a plane was so hard for me,” Verna remembers. She also remembers with joy the photos Errolyn shared with her family upon her return.

“Family Matters is support for parents and families.”
All parents of Family Connections students attend monthly parent meetings, where they have the opportunity to share their experiences and plan various aspects of the program. Verna says, “Coming here was a blessing for me in helping me to focus, and many times to forget all of the troubles that were going on at home.” When she came for her first parent meeting, she describes walking in and feeling able to take a deep breath. “I could see why the kids wanted to come. The environment here relaxes you.”  From assistance with immigration papers, to supplying their first home computer, to problem solving at home and school, to providing Thanksgiving dinner, Verna found a caring support network. “We didn’t have anything, and Family Matters helped us out.”

Verna with her grandchildren, Azarieae (7) and Josiah (5)
Family Matters is about Giving Back
Errol and Errolyn finished high school and went on to postsecondary education. Both return to volunteer regularly, illustrating what many say about Family Matters – that once you’re here, you never really leave. Fifteen years later, Verna continues to feel a sense of peace when she walks into Family Matters. Now she comes as a board member, an annual Walk-a-thon volunteer, and as a grandmother to a third generation of Family Connections participants. Azarieae and Josiah heard about Family Matters from their Aunt Errolyn, Uncle Errol, and their grandparents and couldn’t wait to be old enough to attend. “Whatever Family Matters asks of me, I will gladly do it because of what they’ve done for me with love. Whatever I can give, I will give.”


Thank you to all of our generous donors for allowing us to support families like Verna’s. If you’d like to join our mailing list, please contact Gretchen Nord at gretchen@familymatterschicago.org.





How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes

In May, Northwestern University’s Theater Department hosted a unique performance entitled How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes (with 199 people you may or may not know). The show was an experiment in dialogue, in collective decision-making, in shared responsibility and in the potential for how art could make our world a better place.

The audience’s involvement was integral to the trajectory of the performance, since they were to decide how to give away $1000 from that night’s box office to fight poverty most effectively in the Chicagoland area. In an effort to ensure that a multitude of voices were present in the audience, Northwestern invited organizations with a particular stake in the conversation to attend.  Family Matters’ Teen Programs attended the show, and were the youngest contributing members of the audience. They were deeply engaged in the process.
 
Using debate, audience members – including FM teens – attempted to convince and cajole other audience members to vote in one of five categories: Daily Needs:  Direct services that provide basic needs like food and shelter; System Change: Lobbying for legislation, advocating policy change, and taking action for social transformation; Education:  Promoting access and building resources toward better institutions and systems of learning; Making Opportunities:  Long-term approaches to economic and occupational stability through training, micro-loans, and personal development; or Individual Need:  Through a local organization called Benevolent.net, individuals are able to support a specific person or family and their self-reported immediate need.

 


After participating in this innovative performance and lively debate, the audience decided the most effective method to end poverty was through the creation of opportunities.  Youth in the audience were joyfully surprised when the show’s facilitators revealed that Family Matters would be awarded $1000 because of the work that we do! Thank you, Northwestern University Theater Department, for offering such a unique approach to discuss solutions on a critically important and complex topic.  We are very grateful we participated and very appreciative of the monetary gift that supports our work in the north of Howard community!

Teen Boys Program partners with Ten Thousand Ripples

 

 

At the bequest of community resident Helen Carlock, and in association with the Ten Thousand Ripples project, Dan McNeil, Director of the Teen Boys Program, and the young men of Family Matters, B.O.N.D Team, met Helen at Triangle Park on May 21st for a beautification project involving a Buddha head. The Buddha head was placed in the park by Ten Thousand Ripples—a multi-platform public art project involving the installation of 100 Buddha sculptures. Serving as symbols of peace and solidarity in 10 neighborhoods around the city of Chicago, the Buddha heads strives to highlight public art and create community responses to peace and contemporary social issues.
Working together with community members, the teen boys cleared trees and weeds to beautify Triangle Park and to create a revered space for the Buddha Head. In addition to removing trees, tree roots and weeds, the team from “The Roots”—as their space is affectionately called—realigned the 300 pound Buddha Head back to its original setting—east facing on Juneway.  

 

Community response to the beautification project was affirmative. John Lamping, a Rogers Park resident and member of the project, offered his thanks to Helen, Dan and Family Matters Teen Boys “for your community support and great company… at Triangle Park.  Your “lumberjacks” did a great job.”
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Teen Boys Participate in Black History Month Celebrations

On Sunday, February 24th the ‘Roots of Rhythm’ performed in the staged production of “The Old African.” The production was part of the 14th Annual African American History Celebration featuring African and ballet dancers, gospels signers, and professional story tellers. The drum team provided ambiance and sound effects for the story, drumming for the dancers and rhythmic support for the singers.
Performing in this production was a new direction for the young men. It demanded more orchestrated rhythmic precision and on cue sound effects central to the story telling, as well as timed rhythmic support for both African and ballet dancers.
The hour long performance played to a full house of participating audience members who part took in the dancing Celebration.
The young men also exhibited their art work and Peace themed t-shirt at the event.
Roots of Rhythm perform at Gale Academy
On Friday February 22nd The Roots of Rhythm performed for Gale Academy students, who were learning about the shared history of the drum, the basic understanding and language of the drum, and drumming performance.
If you are interested in engaging the ‘Roots of Rhythm’ team for a performance, please contact Dan McNeil at dan@familymatterschicago.org or at 773-465-6011 ext. 122. The young men have performed at outdoor community events, weddings, religious services, benefits, and private parties