At 15, Louis on his way to becoming another sad statistic in the Chicago violence epidemic. “I’m not going to lie – I was a problem child, and so my mom kicked me out of the house,” the 18 year old recalls. “I had a lot of anger and was hard to handle. I could have easily been one of those stories you read about on the news, of a guy that gets shot or is in jail.”
Louis grew up in Englewood, one of Chicago neighborhoods most impacted by violence. He lived with his mom, older sister and younger brother, until the day he found himself homeless at just 15. He found his way to a shelter that works with homeless teens, which in turn referred him to Children’s Home + Aid. Louis was initially served by a state-funded Children’s Home + Aid program that provided extensive supports for teens who are homeless.
“My caseworker at Children’s Home + Aid really looked out for me, cared for me, came to every court hearing, got me back in school,” said Louis. “My first case worker was almost like a mom, she treated me like one of her own, and I still stay in touch with her, even though she doesn’t work for the agency anymore.”
Sadly, the program that provided such critical and lifesaving support for Louis and hundreds of other homeless teens was suspended in February 2016 in Englewood as a result of the Illinois budget crisis. Louis then participated in a Children’s Home + Aid program called Project RISE that works with young men who have their first encounter with the criminal justice system.
“When I first heard about Project RISE, I didn’t have anything else going on in my life, so I thought I would participate – I had nothing to lose,” Louis says. “That got me connected to people like Jimi and Avery (Children’s Home + Aid staff members) who showed me there are more positive ways to live, lead me in the right direction.”
Jimi Orange, Director of Youth Services for Children’s Home + Aid, oversees the comprehensive array of programs offered to Englewood youth, including the Project RISE program and the youth employment program called One Summer Chicago. “Louis took advantage of every service we offered, and really wanted to create a better future,” Jimi said. “In addition to his involvement with Project RISE, Louis worked in our summer jobs program, which is generously funded by the City of Chicago. The jobs program offers youth their first experience with a paid job, and teaches such essential skills as how to interview for a job, how to work with a supervisor, how to get along with coworkers and other job readiness skills.”
Louis turns 18 in a few weeks. He is back living with his mom, attending high school regularly and on track to graduate in June. He very much wants to attend college and become an engineer, but worries about how he will afford it. He is now working part-time, providing child care in the evenings for parents attending support groups on the South Side, and helping out as a mentor with the Project RISE program where he got his start.
“There are so many other young men who have it even harder than me,” Louis says. “I want to do everything I can to help Children’s Home + Aid so that these programs can be available to other kids like me, who need someone in their corner.”
“I guess I had to lose everything in order to find myself.”
RISE is funded by the Chicago Department of Family & Support Services