Fourteen-year-old Clara Lacy and her niece could have been killed.
“I was taking her to school in a Blackstone neighborhood,” Clara says. “This boy was throwing gang signs across the street, and some other boys were throwing them back. He ran right in front of me just as they started shooting at him. He got shot in the leg. I almost got shot. Then another boy got a gun he’d hidden in a garbage can in the alley and started shooting back at the boys across the street. I put my little niece on my back and started running.”
Unfortunately, Clara’s experience isn’t that unusual for a teenager growing up in Chicago’s inner city. It is a place of danger, drugs, violence, and fear. Each day is filled with uncertainty. There are few incentives to do well in school. Unwed parents and nonfunctioning families are commonplace. Everyone seems to have been the victim of, or knows someone close who has been the victim of, serious crime.
Of course it’s not that bad everywhere all the time. There are quiet neighborhoods. There are good friends, strong families, and honest efforts to improve. Life goes on. But it is often life in the shadow of fear, the sort of shadow that can make the future seem bleak.
If only someone could open a window and let Clara glimpse a better life. Maybe then hope could grow in place of despair.
Such a window is being opened, thanks to a nonprofit foundation called the Inner City Youth Charitable Trust. Each summer, two groups of 20 boys each, one ages 9–11 and one ages 12–14, attend a three-week camp called Summer Quarters. Facilities are located in farm country 50 miles north of Chicago, and students from Ricks College of Rexburg, Idaho, serve as counselors. Twenty girls ages 12–18 attend the three-week Lucy Mack Smith Summer Jam—Yes I Can day camp, held at the Hyde Park/Ryan Woods chapel but with field trips to various locations. Again, students from Ricks’ Urban Discovery program serve as counselors.
The inner-city youth participants are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or relatives or friends of members. Clara, for example, is a member of the Ryan Woods Ward, Chicago Heights Illinois Stake. Each participant must be interviewed and recommended by a bishop and agree to abide by Church standards. A number of the inner-city youth are repeat participants, having benefitted from the program several summers in a row.
The trust (which was founded five years ago by Church members but involves other business and professional people) also sponsors Career Adventure, a program for about 20 inner-city youth ages 14–18. It includes a one-week exploration of career opportunities and tours of businesses with student counselors who have come to Chicago from Brigham Young University. And it teams up participants with mentors who will help the teenagers acquire job skills and employment opportunities.
The overall program isn’t huge. But it is an effort that is teaching a lot to both streetwise kids and previously sheltered students.
“I think the whole purpose is for the boys to realize that there’s more in life than the violence and the gangs,” says Summer Quarters counselor Hans “Maddy” Madsen. “It’s also to help us as counselors to realize that there are people in need.
“It’s hard for me to imagine the kind of society where you never feel safe,” he continues. “I come from a stable home with both parents. Most of these kids only have one parent or they’re living with their grandma or a cousin or someone else.
“One boy told me of at least 25 incidents where he had seen people shot, stabbed, or killed. Those were just the ones he could remember at the moment. Another boy had his cousin die in his arms.”
Statistics show that 80 percent of inner-city children have witnessed violence first-hand by the time they are four years old, according to statistics the Ricks students receive in their sociology classes.
“They are very mature in some ways,” Maddy says. “But they have witnessed so much that they’re calloused. They’re not used to trusting people. That’s one of the things we try to teach them—that there are people you can trust.”
That trust is built in a variety of ways. Boys and counselors go on bike rides or go swimming together. With adult volunteers from the Buffalo Grove and Naperville Illinois Stakes, they work on school skills, like math and spelling. They sing songs and put on skits. They visit a dairy and a toolbox manufacturer. The boys work one-on-one with counselors on simple projects, like building model planes and toy boats.
“Some of the things we do at camp, like making boats and planes, are good things to do at home when you’re alone or bored and there’s nothing to do,” says Chris Woods, 12, who is investigating the Church. “They’ll keep us off the streets, keep us from getting physical and threatening somebody.”
The girls’ field trips take them to a construction site, a radio station, a bank, and a hotel. During workshops at the chapel, they learn to play songs on the piano and lead music; act in plays; write journals; and sew quilts, pillows, and curtains. They play sports and rehearse for job interviews.
“We learn a lot of practical things,” says Qawi Wafford, 12, of the Chicago First Ward, Wilmette Illinois Stake.
And whether it’s at the chapel in town or at camp in the country, there is also a spiritual level of trust that’s growing.
“Because of the gospel we feel a kinship,” says Elisa McConkie, a Summer Jam counselor. “But a lot of them don’t understand what the Church is all about and what it has to offer them. So we try to explain that. And a lot of them are lacking love, which is something we as counselors can give. We give them moral support, verbal support, a lot of guidance. And we try to encourage them to think about their future, things like, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’”
“Our lives are centered around eternity, getting married, raising a family, getting an education,” says Summer Jam Counselor Brandi McCoy. “A lot of those ideas are foreign to them. They never think about tomorrow, just today. Making it past the eighth grade is a monumental feat for some of them. One of the girls asked me what it was like to have a peaceful night’s rest, because every night in the city she hears gunshots and sirens. Another asked me if I was always scared in high school, if I’d ever had to run home from school, or if anyone had tried to beat me up.
“Too many times people forget they have souls,” she continues. “But when we were here singing ‘Walk Tall, You’re a Daughter of God,’ I saw the light shining in their eyes. And when we talk about the temple and about eternal families, even though you can tell it’s hard for them to grasp, you can tell it’s something they want to live for.”
“At Summer Quarters we read the scriptures every night,” explains counselor Dan Kolilis. “Just last night we went out to the tents where the boys stay and had pop and chips with them. Then we read in the Book of Mormon about Jesus Christ blessing the little children. All of this year’s male counselors are returned missionaries, so we talked about our missions. Then we read the verse that says: ‘Therefore, go ye unto your homes, and ponder upon the things which I have said, and ask of the Father, in my name, that ye may understand’ (3 Ne. 17:3). It was the last night of the camp. We wanted them to go home, as we will go home, to think about how, with the gospel in their lives, the Lord will help them and guide them.”
The inner-city youth, like a lot of teens, don’t talk at length about what they feel in their hearts. Ask about Summer Jam or Summer Quarters, and their phrases are mainly short ones, like, “I feel safe here” or “I wish we could stay forever.”
But they do say they hope their counselors will write to them. And they do have a very hard time, after the farewell picnic, letting go of the hugs and saying good-bye.
The programs are short, and the inner city is strong. But through an open window comes air and light, enough to keep hope alive.