By Guy King
Too often, the news out of Chicago’s South Austin neighborhood is about young people falling victim to gun violence, but Saturday, several children in the community were all smiles as they helped celebrate the grand opening of a new home for Kidz Express, an after-school center dedicated to providing “a nurturing environment” for adolescents in the community.
In September, Kidz Express, which has served South Austin for nearly 20 years, relocated from a cramped storefront at 342 S. Laramie Avenue to 5221 W. Congress Parkway, the site of the old Leland Elementary School, which was one of the 50 Chicago Public Schools shuttered by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his school board in 2013. In its new venue, Kidz Express is better able to serve the 88 children who seek refuge there each weekday. They also get homework help and a hot meal. The new space has over 15,000 square feet, including 10 classrooms, a game room, an all-purpose room, and a therapy/music room.
“Kidz Express started about 20 years ago, and it was in the basement of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church[in Oak Park],” said Greg Morris, president of the Kidz Express board of directors. “About 12 years ago, we transitioned to a building just around the corner from this location. It was a wonderful location, and it served us very well, but we’ve outgrown that space. We’ve had more kids then we could actually fit, and there was really no room for programing.”
The ceremonial “grand opening” was an opportunity for the Kidz Express to show off the news space and thank its supporters, including Chicago and Cook County public officials, as well as representatives from the Boys and Girls Club of Chicago, the Western Cook County chapter of Jack and Jill.
Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin, whose 5th District encompasses Kidz Express, was among the officials on hand. Boykin said he considers Kidz Express “hugely important” to not only the children, but the Austin community. Boykin said he plans to work with his colleagues on the county board to provide more funding for the center, as well as kick off an initiative in 2017 to provide 300 Austin youth between the ages of 16 and 24 with job opportunities.
“This place offers real hope in the midst of so much misery, and it also leads to several neighborhoods where a number of people were shot and killed this year,” Boykin said. “[It] offers a well-rounded development of the total individual, and so I’ve been very impressed as I’ve walked around and looked at all of the rooms and see some of the great work that is taking place between these walls.”
Kidz Express is built on a concept its directors describe as “cross-peer mentoring” in which older adolescents who have grown up in the program are hired as junior mentors who model good behavior and tutor the younger children who attend the program. The program affords young people like 15-year-old Christian Pearson not only with a safe environment in which to complete his homework, but a job that enables him to help his peers excel in the classroom and builds his own self esteem. Christian is one of about seven junior mentors, age 14 to 25, who receive funding for the tutorial services provided at Kidz Express.
“The reason why I like coming [to Kidz Express] is because of the kids in the program,” said Pearson, who hopes to become a mathematician. “I like helping them with their homework, and then I got to get my work done here because I don’t have a computer at my own house.”
Gang violence and unemployment are twin problems that limit the futures of young people in Austin. More than 200 people have been killed by gunshot in Austin in 2016, according to the Chicago Police, and unemployment. Unemployment for youth under the age of 25 in area hovers around 90 percent, according to the Illinois Bureau of Labor statistics.
Doug Low, Kidz Express vice president and executive director, said the program taps into the resiliency and talent that are often overlooked in the community.
“We really believe in this program, and what we do is hire youth from the neighborhood, starting at the age of 14,” said Low. “Their job is to build relationships with the kids, to become mentors, and become potentially older brothers and older sisters.”
Kidz Express board member and founder Duane Ehresman said the new location makes it possible for the program to reach the goal of “helping up to 200 kids” in the south Austin community.
“I’m excited for the program and the new location as a whole,” said Darnell Pearson, a senior mentor who has been with the program for 11 years. “The new building is giving us an opportunity to grow with the community.”