On October 23, the Empire State Building lit up the New York skyline as afterschool programs across the nation opened their doors for rallies, talent shows, open houses, and more. The Afterschool Alliance’s fifteenth annual LightsOn! Afterschool rally attempts to shine a metaphorical light on the work of afterschool programs in communities throughout the country and to demonstrate the pressing need for investment in afterschool programs.
The Afterschool Alliance’s expansive survey found that eighteen percent of Illinois kids are participating in an afterschool program this year, while forty-one percent of children in the state would like to participate in an afterschool program if it were available, and twenty percent have no supervision between 3 pm and 6 pm These are the hours when children are most likely to get into trouble, and yet they have huge potential as time for additional opportunities for learning and growth.
The Weekly checked out several LightsOn! events on the South Side to see what existing programs are already accomplishing and why afterschool matters in our communities. (Mari Cohen)
ABC Polk Bros. Youth Center
“Alright, just one more right answer and you guys will be the winners of LightsOn! Afterschool Family Feud!” For the first time in the evening, the room is silent, but for the sound of a little girl’s feet as she shuffles anxiously. Two families and an audience await game show host Kimberly George’s next words. After a few more attempts by both teams to snag the title, one family sneaks up from behind and emerges as the victors. Cheers erupt.
In addition to this dramatic round of Family Feud, the ABC Polk Bros. Youth Center organized a workshop on diagnosing and treating asthma, a grill-out, a karaoke room, and a volleyball tournament between the kids, staff, and parents. This was just a taste of the center’s usual offerings: tutoring and academic assistance, service opportunities, and sports, arts, and gardening activities.
As George, the Center’s College and Career Specialist, gave me a tour of the Center, she explained, “the whole idea of [the event] is to promote afterschool programming; to keep it going, keep it funded.” In North Lawndale, like other communities throughout Chicago and the country, afterschool programs are vital. Over 100 kids between the ages of 3 and eighteen pass through ABC Polk Bros. every day.,
“They’ve really been exposed to a lot of stuff,” said George as she showed me crime statistics for the neighborhood. Between August 13 and September 12 of this year, ninety violent crimes took place in North Lawndale. Crime actually peaks between 4pm and 7pm, the hours during which most of children attend the Center.
The staff encourages students to establish goals and start thinking about future careers and academic opportunities. The middle school program includes time to research potential universities, and over sixty of ABC Polk Bros.’ previous members have sent word to Center staff that they are now in college, in fields including urban planning, political science, social work, and criminal justice.
Shortly after I arrived, one boy burst out the back door into the garden exclaiming, “I’m here!” George laughed and explained that members of the Center look forward to the LightsOn! event. But when a cheerful young girl named Malika proclaimed to me, “I praise the Lord every day for this day!” it was clear that the excitement wasn’t a one-time thing. (Chloe Havadas)
Elliott Donnelly Youth Center
“Hi! I’m so happy you could make it!” exclaims Director Yvette Goodrich, greeting parents with a tone as warm and vibrant as the colorfully painted walls at the Elliott Donnelly Youth Center. The Bronzeville hub for afterschool programming welcomed families to participate in pumpkin carving, arts and crafts, and poster making at an open house on a Thursday evening, highlighting the skills built and relationships formed by students who spend their weekday afternoons at this half-century old institution.
Elliott Donnelly, on S. 40th St. and Michigan Ave., offers various afterschool opportunities for about fifty school-age students and teens, including arts and science instructional programs, museum field trips, and counseling on teen pregnancy prevention and college and career readiness.
Keveon Morrow, a gregarious seventh grader from Pershing East with an affinity for science, enjoys playing basketball at Elliott Donnelly.
“I like doing physical activity,” he says, intently scooping pulpy pumpkin flesh from the jack-o-lantern he and his father are preparing to carve. “Plus, I’m athletic,” he adds with a confident grin.
Keveon’s father, Kevin Morrow, is quick to praise the impact that Elliott Donnelly’s afterschool programs have had on his son’s life. “Keveon has learned valuable lessons from all the trips and educational experiences he’s had in his five years here,” Morrow says. “We don’t ever worry, because we know he’s in good hands.”
As Goodrich and her team of instructors and assistants stroll through the activity stations, chatting with families and gently teasing the students they work with everyday, it is clear that the Youth Center is more than a location for activities; it is a deep-rooted community of support, where staff partner with parents to teach and raise their children.
With gusto and grit, Goodrich is committed to securing the resources necessary to maintain and expand Elliott Donnelly’s program capacity. “We got van transportation this year, which is huge,” she says, beaming. Goodrich says she’s grateful for funding that allows students to be safely transported from their schools to Elliott Donnelly after school.
Goodrich is excited about new partnerships on the horizon as well, including the development of an arts curriculum with the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum and the Logan Arts Center. “More and more people are finally realizing that afterschool is not a luxury,” she says. “It is a necessity.” (Olivia Myszkowski)
The Design Apprenticeship Program
Multicolored sheets of paper hung on one wall of Currency Exchange Café, each displaying a single word: Community. Peace. Opinion. Family.Throughout the evening, guests of the Design Apprenticeship Program’s first LightsOn! Open Mic covered the papers with words, stories, and pictures, offering their personal definitions of these words. Handmade wooden blocks with conversation-starting questions were spread out on tables, allowing several of us to discuss the questions posed by nearby blocks: “What does peace mean to you?” “Where do you get to express your opinions?”
Through the Design Apprenticeship Program (DAP)—part of the University of Chicago’s Arts + Public Life initiative—students spend ten hours each week working in the Arts Incubator workshop on Garfield Blvd. under the mentorship of design professionals. In its second year, DAP has doubled its capacity, thanks to funding from After School Matters.
Aside from honing their craft, design, and presentation skills, students develop a sense of their ability to enact change not only in their immediate surroundings, but within the larger community. With the support of the Sustainability Council, Chicago Park District, the University of Chicago Department of Visual Arts, and Alderman Pat Dowell, DAP students will transform the empty lot on the corner of Garfield and Calumet into a “pocket park,” a space for performance and leisure, in addition to smaller scale public arts projects.
The students also conceptualized and set up nearly every part of the Open Mic. (One mentioned to me that she had even helped with the design and assembly of the café earlier this year.) They performed dances and recited excerpts of speeches, essays, and poems, some of them original, and all of them to a double round of applause. The MCs insisted that everyone, whether prepared or not, was welcome to get up behind the microphone.
Miguel Aguilar, Director of DAP, said that the evening marked the beginning of a concerted effort to transform Currency Exchange into a welcoming environment for members of the Washington Park community. And by the end of the night, the transformation had already begun. The café filled with not only friends and family, but also passers-by who, having heard the applause and laughter within, decided to stop by. (Emeline Posner)