By Connor Morgan
Breakthrough Urban Ministries’ Youth Network provides young people with the opportunity to explore their interests in a safe environment. One of those interests is basketball.
Many kids dream of becoming professional athletes, but one group of volunteers in East Garfield Park believe that dream should come with a back-up plan.
The Breakthrough Youth Network, with more than 700 participants ages three to 19 directed by a combination of parents, financial donors, staffers and volunteers, implements a three-pronged formula that helps children and young adults cultivate interests and develop skills, improving the likelihood of career attainment, said Bill Curry, chief program officer.
The program’s steps to success include training kids to have a strong work ethic, helping build skills based on their interests and connecting youth with professionals along their desired career path.
“You have to work hard, have relevant skills, know how to acquire skill and have a network of relationships of people who are further down the road than you are,” Curry said. “And when you add all those things up, we believe you create opportunity in your life.”
It all starts in the Breakthrough lunchroom, where parents bring their children to pick their interests. Simulating a lunch line, the families select ‘meal options’ in the form of activities that appeal to the children. This initial selection period is in no way binding, but gives the staff an idea of which mentors should work with which children.
The program’s aim is to provide participants with a safe environment to explore their interests, with the end goal of better preparing youth to enter the job market.
“In a community like ours that’s been devoid of a lot of opportunities for 50 years now, it’s a steep hill to climb for kids to enter the workforce successfully,” Curry said. “By giving them the tools and the experiences they need to accept failure and pursue success, we are giving our young people a greater likelihood of accomplishing their goals.”
From the program’s robotics competition teams to its traveling AAU basketball squads, the Youth Network applies the same three-tiered approach: hard work, relevant skills, and networking connections.
This career-centered method has proven successful to many of the program’s youth, including the athletes, which make up 90 percent of the 735 participants.
Curry said the program has seen 75 students attend college during its 15 year history, with many more landing steady employment.
The program’s travel AAU team, the Breakthrough Raptors, features athletes from local Chicago high schools who recognize that becoming professional basketball players is a tough task, and are learning the importance of having a back-up plan.
“The program has really helped me prioritize,” said Raptors’ guard Corinthian Fields, 14. “I want to be an NBA player, but what if I get injured? Breakthrough has me thinking ahead and has got me considering coaching as a possible career.”
Raptors’ guard Quinn Curry, 16, Bill Curry’s son, said the opportunities to travel with a basketball team and the exposure to different mentors throughout the program have prepared him for a life outside of basketball.
“It drives me to really focus on my long-term goals of playing at a mid-major school,” Quinn said. “I love basketball, so I want to get into either sports therapy, training or coaching.”
Quinn added that the recent renovations to the facility drive him even more to focus on his future.
“We used to play on an outdoor court with rocks on it, but this new court is a nice reminder of what the program is doing and that motivates me,” Quinn said.
For some youth in the program, having a caring staff and a positive support system sends a strong message. Dexter Reed, 16, said after late-night basketball practices, staff members offer to drive participants home in company vehicles.
“They really look out for you and make sure you’re safe,” Reed said. “That means a lot to know they care that much for you.”
Bill Curry credits the program’s formula for giving its athletes a sense of direction.
“The typical Breakthrough athlete is still trying to determine whether they want to succumb to the streets or try to swim upstream and go a different route,” he said. “Our hope is that by creating these healthy mentoring relationships, we can create a sense of camaraderie, where you’re feeling it on your own block. You may be struggling, but you see other people who are doing the same thing, and that’s encouraging.”