All SGA services are provided free of charge. With your help, we can continue to help transform communities, one child, one adult, one family at a time, with tailored support that breaks the cycle of poverty and creates instead a cycle of opportunity. Our success is rooted in the accomplishments of the people we serve.
Meet Mariela: Building Higher Aspirations
“I didn’t know what I wanted for my life,” Mariela Gonzalez told us in an interview. Before receiving our services, this client was struggling. Mariela dropped out of high school after giving birth to her first child. Her life goals were to be a
goodwife and have children. Mariela didn’t have any higher aspirations.
Married at 17 years old, she and her husband have three children together: Jacob, 5 years old; Jayleen, 3 years old and Jasaiva, 1 year old. Since December 2015, Mariela has been a client in our teen parenting program.
As part of the program, SGA pairs teen parents with a mentor who meets with them one on one and visits their homes to check in on them. Mariela’s mentor helped enroll her two oldest children in daycare. She also helped Mariela get a job working four days per week at the same daycare. Mentors check in on clients at work periodically to ensure they’re performing their best, and assist clients in areas where they may be struggling.
All program participants gather weekly, along with mentors. They learn parenting skills as well as arts and crafts to teach the children in their daycare. Mariela says, “We are all friends in the group. We’re always hanging out, and with the kids. We tell each other things straight up like sisters.”
Mariela’s mentor helped her create and achieve goals throughout her time in the program. One of those goals was studying for and receiving her GED in 2016. Her mentor also pushed her to apply for and enroll in college. Mariela is currently studying at Harold Washington College, and plans to go into child development or social work.
In only a few short years, Mariela’s concept of self has grown dramatically. She says, “I never knew what a strong person I was until going through the SGA program. It helped me so much, and I can show my kids there’s more to life.”
When Brittany Stokes got a letter from her son Darell’s daycare, she had no idea that it would unlock her passion and enable her to make a better life for her two sons. As she unfolded it, she read that Shining Star Learning Center recommended her for the Chicago Young Parents Program, an initiative of SGA Youth & Family Services. “At the moment I wasn’t working, so I thought, why not give it a chance.”
Chicago Young Parents Program, or CYPP, serves young parents, ages 16 to 24, whose children participate in Early Head Start or Head Start programs. Parents receive on-the-job training to become a Head Start aide, as well as education coaching and job placement services.
Looking back on her life, childcare seems like the perfect career path for Brittany. But she never realized it until this serendipitous letter arrived.
As a high school student, Brittany Stokes didn’t know what she wanted to be when she grew up—she just knew she “wanted to be grown.” While she did well in the classroom, she started missing school her senior year when her older sister Brionna had a baby. “I missed a lot of days because I stayed home with my niece Keonna, so my sister could finish school. My mom was working overnights, and Brionna was working and going to school, so I stayed home to help.”
Brittany loved caring for her niece, and the two formed a special bond. But as her senior year of high school came to a close, she learned she was missing half a credit and wouldn’t be able to graduate. She enrolled in hair school, but dropped out after realizing it wasn’t for her. At age 20, she started working in a women’s retail store downtown, commuting 45 minutes each way. “I worked my whole pregnancy with Darell, but the commute got to be too much—I wanted more time with my son. I started working overnight at a gas station, but then I was too tired during the days so I couldn’t keep doing that.”
It was right around that time that the letter arrived—just as Brittany learned she was five months pregnant with her second child, Daelon. Typically a reserved person, Brittany decided to take the chance and completed the enclosed application. Quickly, she received a call from Nydia Juarbe, a CYPP mentor. “At first I thought, ‘She’s nice,’” recalls Brittany. “And then I thought, ‘She’s a pusher! She’s going to push me into doing some things I might not want to do right away.’ But we grew on each other.”
The next week, Brittany began working part-time at Shining Star, located in Chicago’s Far South Side. Just two weeks later, she was asked to go full-time. She said yes, mostly for the paycheck. With a toddler and a baby on the way, Brittany was worried about paying bills and the longer hours provided financial relief. But she soon realized this job was about so much more than the pay. “I had never thought about working with kids, even though I’ve always been good with kids. I grew to love working in childcare—instantly! It’s my passion.”
With SGA’s support, Brittany completed her high school diploma and went on to obtain her Child Development Associate (CDA) certificate. “It was hard, because it was really time consuming. I actually started the CDA class two weeks before I gave birth and I was working full time. I would take the class on my lunch break. I missed two weeks when I had my son, and then I had just a short amount of time to take the test. But my mom and Nydia were pushing me, and I took the test and passed.”
With that success under her belt, Brittany now plans to go back to school for her associate’s degree, then a bachelor’s in early childhood education while continuing to work at Shining Star. Someday, she dreams of opening her own daycare.
In the meantime, she is continuing to participate in CYPP. In addition to regularly meeting one-on-one with Nydia, Brittany also attends a group class each Friday, where the cohort receives practical and soft skills job trainings. Through that experience, she’s become friends with other young moms. “We give each other the motivation to keep going—go to work, go to school, keep doing it for your kids.”
CYPP has opened up a whole new side of Brittany’s personality. “I’m more outgoing. I opened up to my co-workers at the daycare. Ask around, everybody loves me.” And she’s driven to meet her personal goals. “I want to own my own house. I want my kids to see my hard work—and to grow up, go to school and finish everything they put their hands to.”
“I think this program is really important for people who are lost. Because I was lost. But once I started opening up to Nydia, it helped me decide, ‘Yes, I do want to finish high school. I do want to finish the program. I do want to get my CDA.’ And now I have a career, I know what I want to do when I go back to school, and I just have to push myself.”
When 22-year-old Arion Askew enrolled in SGA’s youth employment program in March 2016, he wasn't sure what he wanted to do with his life. But his mom, who referred him to SGA, knew what she didn't want him doing: getting into trouble.
Like all participants, Arion began with an online survey that explores possible career options. The results showed an interest in construction, something Arion had considered but had no experience in and didn't know how to get his foot in the door. Out of that survey, Arion and his mentor were able to develop a personalized education and career plan.
Within just a couple weeks, Arion was placed at a construction worksite with Prologue, Inc., where he learned the basics in demolition, rehab and safety. At the same time, the SGA team provided one-on-one and group coaching on how to excel in the workforce. "Despite the grueling schedule, Arion arrived to the worksite daily, prepared to dive in and give 100 percent," says Jesenia Latorre, program coordinator. "He was determined to succeed."
At the end of his training, Arion knew he wanted to continue pursuing a career in construction. SGA referred him to a community partner, where he was officially hired this past September and is currently employed. To further his career and success, Arion is starting classes this month at Dawson Technical College to become a lineman.
"My new career gives me confidence and is keeping me on the right path," Arion says. Jesenia agrees, adding "Arion is productive and happy about his success in his career choice. It's a win for both of us!"
Interested in becoming a worksite host for SGA's employment programs? Learn more at sga-youth.org/workforce.
Meet John: Employing Opportunity Youth
To that end, we are working in partnership with the City of Chicago, Thrive Chicago and 150+ organizations and employers to reach a radical goal announced this month: Reconnect 10,000 Opportunity Youth to school or work by 2020.
Based on our 106-year history of working with Opportunity Youth, SGA is positioned to be a leader in addressing this pressing issue. SGA's youth employment programs include comprehensive support systems to address the main barriers to re-engagement, such as housing, education and behavioral health services. What's unique about SGA's programs is our individualized approach. By getting to know the Opportunity Youth's personal story and barriers, we can customize a plan to help them reach their goals and achieve long-term success.
This model worked for John*, an Opportunity Youth who came to SGA in September 2016 with a number of barriers to re-entry—but the hope that he could change his life. John had just six high school credits, was a high-ranking gang member and also served as the primary caregiver and source of income for his younger brother and mother. Finishing school seemed impossible. But as John learned to trust SGA's staff, it became apparent that he had the drive and tenacity to overcome his challenges. SGA secured a small weekly stipend, allowing John to enroll in an alternative high school. While at school, John began positively interacting with his peers and even got involved in extracurricular activities! Today, he is on track to graduate this spring and has been accepted to Kentucky State University. His goal is to become a veterinarian and return to Chicago after college. John is an example of the perseverance and potential Opportunity Youth have when given the support to realize their potential.
Meet Trameka: Defying the Odds
Trameka and her family came into contact with SGA the summer of her 8th-grade year. A teacher introduced Trameka, who was six months pregnant, to SGA’s Early Advantage Teen Parenting Program. Through SGA, Trameka received services that helped her understand the stages of her pregnancy as well as childbirth, preparing her to become a new mom.
When Trameka gave birth to her beautiful daughter Danielle, she was in the first week of her freshman year of high school. SGA continued supporting Trameka, helping her learn how to best care for her daughter and herself during this new phase of her life. Despite facing innumerable obstacles, Trameka returned to school and enrolled in all honors classes. She became involved in a number of extracurricular activities and a scholars program all while working part-time and continuing to receive services from SGA. By her senior year, Trameka was the number one student in her graduating class at Wendell Phillips High School, was accepted to more than twenty colleges and was awarded $80,000+ in scholarships.
Trameka beat the odds: One year after graduating high school, she is now a full-time student at Western Illinois University, working toward her Bachelor of Science degree in Public Health and raising her daughter Danielle, all while maintaining a part-time job and a 3.5 grade point average! Trameka has a strong support system in her new friends at Western Illinois who gather together every Sunday night for a “family dinner” to discuss the week ahead and keep one another motivated. Trameka also makes time to be a part of Western Illinois’ Dance Team. Most importantly, Trameka is a wonderful mother to Danielle who is enrolled in a Head Start Program and is on her own path to success preparing to enter kindergarten! Trameka is an incredibly ambitious young woman who has accomplished a great deal in her life while facing immeasurable challenges. We are so excited for Trameka and Danielle’s future.
Download Trameka's story: Trameka Defied the Odds Against Teen Moms
Meet Cynthia: Overcoming Poverty, Becoming President
Every morning, Cynthia woke up to the sun shining through her bedroom window. It may have been sunny and bright in California, but Cynthia didn't feel happy. She and her husband José were struggling to make ends meet and without her high school diploma or GED, Cynthia was finding it more and more challenging to get consistent work. They could no longer afford to live in California.
Cynthia was working part-time at a fast-food restaurant when she found out she was pregnant for the second time. Both Cynthia and José were incredibly anxious, as their first pregnancy ended with a traumatizing miscarriage. This pregnancy would be high risk, meaning frequent doctor visits, more tests and close monitoring of every stage of their baby's development. Dealing with the barriers of poverty only made these new challenges feel that much more daunting.
So, Cynthia and José packed up their apartment and moved to Chicago, where they were told by friends and relatives they would be able to find work and affordable housing.Cynthia and José settled on the west-side of the city in the Brighton Park neighborhood.
Two months before her due date, after a very difficult seven months, Cynthia went into labor and her baby was born prematurely at 4 pounds, 8 ounces. Following a month in the hospital, a myriad of tests and weeks in an incubator, Cynthia and José were finally able to take their baby daughter, Nicole, home.
Caring for a premature baby was extremely challenging for Cynthia and José, but Nicole brought great joy to their lives. They loved watching her grow and change, but they noticed that Nicole was not reaching certain milestones that they read about in their baby book. At six months, Nicole was not rolling over, holding herself up, or sitting on her own. Nicole was not cooing or babbling like an infant usually does and she wasn't able to hold onto her toys or objects.
Cynthia and José were very concerned and reached out to one of their friends who was a mother of two. Her friend suggested she reach out to SGA, where she took her son when he showed signs of developmental delays.
With that, Cynthia bundled Nicole up in her winter coat, secured her into the stroller and walked to SGA's Brighton Park Community Center. Nicole was enrolled in SGA's child development services and Cynthia and José began receiving parenting services that day. Nicole's developmental condition was immediately assessed by a Family Support Specialist who visited the family in their home. Based on the findings of the assessment, a plan was devised to help Nicole reach her developmental milestones and receive medical interventions from our partnering organizations. Cynthia and José were also provided with an assessment by a Parent Educator who worked with them to develop a plan to improve their parenting skills.
Every week, Nicole, Cynthia and José received a visit from their Family Support Specialist and Parent Educator in their home for 90 minutes. The SGA team worked with the family to educate them and provide them with the support they all needed to make sure Nicole could get on track. After one month of services, Nicole began to show improvements in her motor skills. By the second month, at 8 months old, Nicole was able to roll over and began sitting up on her own!
While Nicole was making great progress, there was still a great deal of work to be done to make sure she was reaching her goals. She was still struggling to grip and hold items, like toys, books and even her bottle. Cynthia worked with Nicole one-on-one every day to help her learn how to hold onto items she desperately wanted to play with or drink from or grab. At one-year-old, Nicole was able to crawl over to her birthday cake and put a big handful in her mouth.
Today, Nicole, Cynthia and José continue to be enrolled in SGA's Child Development and Parenting services and are working to ensure Nicole is prepared to enter kindergarten, ready to learn!
While Cynthia is very busy raising Nicole, she is also on her own path to success! While receiving services at SGA, Cynthia was motivated to become more involved in the successful work being done with children and families. When the opportunity arose to serve as a member of SGA's Brighton Park Parent Committee, Cynthia jumped at the chance to expand her horizons and learn more about social services. She also had a strong drive to give back to her community.
Recently, Cynthia was nominated to be President of the Parent Committee! In her role, Cynthia works to provide feedback, guidance and recommendations of ways SGA can strategically maintain and improve the life-changing child development and parenting services offered to families in Chicago's west region.
"SGA has had such a big impact on my life," says Cynthia. "They helped me and my husband improve our parenting skills so we could help our daughter and they provided early intervention for my daughter so she could learn and develop appropriately. Now they are helping me to grow as a professional. As President of the Brighton Park Parent Committee, I have learned so much about social services that I am planning to go back to school to learn more about social services when Nicole starts kindergarten. I want to get my GED, and further my education to help families like mine in Brighton Park. Maybe at SGA!"
As soon as Cynthia is ready to go back to school, she will work with SGA's Academic Counselors to begin preparing to obtain her GED and begin furthering her education, leading to a job. Cynthia's path to success has been paved not only by her commitment to bettering herself and her family but by the contributions of SGA's partners and friends who provide consistent support!
Download Cynthia's story: Cynthia Overcame Poverty and Became President
Meet Martin: Transforming a Life of Violence into a Life of Hope
The sound of handcuffs closing on Martin’s* wrists echoed in his ears. Louder than the sirens. Louder than the sound of being read his Miranda rights. The handcuffs pinched his skin and he winced as he was placed in the back of the police car. Martin hung his head low, closed his eyes and wondered how he got here and feared where he was going next as the car drove away toward what he knew would be a very turbulent future.
Growing up in Roseland—one of Chicago’s most challenged neighborhoods—Martin came from a broken family that constantly struggled to make ends meet. Martin’s parents faced innumerable difficulties including unemployment, substance abuse and sometimes homelessness. He often came home from school to find no one there to greet him. No food on the table or in the cupboards. He would walk to the corner store, and buy whatever the $1.50 he had in his pocket would afford. Martin often had potato chips and a soda for dinner.
Nothing about Martin’s life was stable. Martin felt scared, angry and hopeless and began to act out. When he was 15 he dropped out of school and succumbed to a life of crime on the streets. Martin had a lengthy rap sheet of serious offenses as he entered the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice’s Illinois Youth Center Correctional Facility. Among them was unlawful use of a weapon and possession of a controlled substance. He was depressed and felt totally out of control.
Martin thought endlessly about how much he wanted to change his life and expressed to a counselor at the facility his strong desire to have a fresh start. That’s when Martin was referred to SGA and introduced to his youth advocate, Latrice. Latrice worked with Martin to enroll him in SGA’s education and employment services.
While Martin was incarcerated, he and Latrice worked together to tailor a detailed plan that would help him obtain his GED and practical job skills. Martin and Latrice determined an academic intervention that would help him get back on track and into a job, and they began to address the social and emotional barriers that pushed Martin into a life of violence and hardship.
After two months of incarceration, Latrice and the SGA team worked with the Public Defender’s Office to arrange for Martin to be released and put under house arrest. Throughout his confinement, Latrice was by his side, providing counseling and helping him study for the High School Equivalency Test. Latrice helped Martin to understand how with SGA’s help he could have the opportunities he needed to pave a path to a successful future, free of the adversity he was so accustomed to experiencing every day.
“I was impressed with Martin’s eagerness to achieve greatness and get back on track from the moment I met him. Upon his enrollment into the program, Martin had only attended high school for a total of 30 days,” says Latrice.
After a few more weeks of tutoring and support, Martin was ready to take the first part of the High School Equivalency Test: Math. He felt anxious, but Latrice worked with him to find ways he could turn his anxiety into positive energy. Martin not only passed Math, two weeks later he also passed Science.
Martin’s self-esteem skyrocketed and he was eager to keep going! He passed the Social Studies test, leaving just one more test to take before he successfully accomplished his goal of obtaining his GED. He was so energized that he quickly pushed forward without taking a week to study for the Reading and Language Arts section. But Martin didn't pass. His heart was broken. Latrice and Martin reviewed the results of the test, identified where Martin needed more help and studied for another week.
Two days after taking the last part of the test, Latrice received a phone call from Martin. He sounded dejected. “I failed again,” Martin muttered. “That’s ok! We will keep going, keep studying and we won’t give up until you pass,” Latrice assured him. After a moment of silence, Martin exclaimed, “Just kidding, Ms. Latrice, I passed!”
With his sense of humor intact, Martin had successfully passed the GED test and was well on his way to a successful future. Latrice and Martin continued working together to accomplish the goals of the plan that was set into motion when he was incarcerated and today Martin is attending Olive Harvey College full-time. Martin has already received his Forklift Driving Certification, the first of many credentials he intends to obtain along with his Associate degree in Construction Management.
Through the Cycle of Opportunity, SGA’s comprehensive approach to creating lasting solutions that help children and families reach their potential, Martin and his family were provided with additional services that helped them deal with the adversity they faced together. Martin still lives in Roseland, and supports himself and helps to support his family. Martin uses the financial literacy skills he learned through SGA to help him manage his finances and keep food on the table. Martin hopes to bring positive change to his community by volunteering to help inspire young people, like him, who are burdened by the challenges of poverty and at-risk of becoming involved in the juvenile justice system, so they never have to feel the restraint of handcuffs and the overwhelming fear of an uncertain future.
“Martin’s story is a perfect example of how SGA helps young people and their families replace the barriers they face with hope and possibility through the Cycle of Opportunity, SGA’s cradle-to-career approach to providing the most comprehensive services possible so that each person we touch can reach his or her full potential. Our goal is to help many more young men like Martin turn their back on a life riddled with crime and violence and instead embrace the chance to have a successful and prosperous future,” says Susana Marotta, PhD, President & CEO.
Download Martin's story: Martin Transformed a Life of Violence into a Life of Hope
*Name and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the individual.
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