Kelly High School’s auditorium was packed Wednesday night by residents of Brighton Park – the neighborhood where a 13-year-old boy was shot on his front porch  while shielding a friend earlier this month – supporting a community anti-violence plan in the face of drastic cuts to programs they say have been working.
“Violence is up in Brighton Park, but it’s not up as much as elsewhere,” said Patrick Brosnan of Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. In nearby Chicago Lawn, killings are up 150 percent, the Chicago Tribune reports .
“The gang issue has gotten more complicated this year,” Brosnan said. “There are a lot of fights, a lot of shootings.” This spring there was an average of a shooting each week, according to The Gate . But BPNC’s youth programs have a lot of success stories, Brosnan said.
State Representative Dan Burke and other officials pledged to help BPNC secure funding from the state for youth leadership and mentoring programs, parent patrols, school-based counseling, and gang intervention programs.
Budget cut in half
Most of those programs are currently funded through two state programs. The Neighborhood Recovery Initiative  provides jobs for 80 young people as peer mentors and 50 parents mentors in each of 20 Chicago communities, and the Safety Net Works program supports existing youth services, including school-based counseling and crisis intervention, to collaborate on broad anti-violence efforts.
But the $30 million funding for the two programs was eliminated in the new state budget. It was replaced by a $15 million allocation to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Agency  for community-based violence prevention efforts.
Organizations participating in the two programs are pressing to keep existing programs operating, said Chris Patterson, NRI coordinator at Organization of the Northeast  in Uptown. “How do you cover 20 communities with half the funding?” he said.
BPNC proposed a plan which would step up programs, including new money to bring CeaseFire to the community.
A better path
The group’s youth programming is “very effective,” said Esteban Salazar, who will be a senior at Kelly this fall. Before getting involved, “I was on a bad path,” he said. “I was hanging around with gangs, hanging around with crews, involved with drugs and alcohol, doing violence.”
He’s left all those things behind, and he now plans to study auto mechanics for a year after graduating high school, then go to college for mechanical engineering.
“They teach us to be a better person, and they do it by having fun,” he said of the program. They’ve volunteered at food pantries and other community sites, visited colleges, met with elected officials. Salazar was surprised to find himself in a meeting with Vice President Joe Biden recently, he said.
The group also organizes an annual violence prevention youth summit.
Back in school
Others have benefited just as much, Salazar said. “There are kids who are in school who wouldn’t be without the program,” he said.
Wednesday night, Jacqueline Cruz testified about the impact of the youth mentoring program. “I was a troubled youth,” she said. “I would cut school and only want to be in the streets. But I’ve been attending school every day and my grades are A’s and B’s. And I even have a job.”
She added: “We don’t want to see a program that has benefited many of us in a positive way to be taken away from us.”
Mark Bachleda, part of the Parent Leadership Action Network, spoke of going door-to-door to reach out to parents struggling to raise adolescents, and called on elected officials who were present to “help us make a difference.”
Hundreds of at-risk students at Kelly High and seven elementary schools have been helped through school-based counseling, said Janeth Herrera.
Constant shifts and annual gaps in program funding create huge difficulties, Brosnan said. “Last year we had to lay off the whole counseling staff [when funding ran out] at the end of June,” he said. “We found out at the end of August that funding was restored and we had to hire a whole batch of new people.”
Such gaps can have serious effects, said Patterson, a former CeaseFire coordinator. “We created a ceasefire between two groups of guys who were doing most of the killings” in Uptown several years ago, he said. “Now since CeaseFire is no longer on the street, they’ve started shooting each other again.”
ICJIA is aware of the work being done by community groups and sensitive to their concerns, said spokesperson Cristin Evans. “We’re still working with the governor’s office to determine the most effective use of funds, given the reduction in the funding level,” she said.
An unsafe park
The biggest demonstration of support Wednesday – the audience erupted in chants — was for BPNC’s campaign to restore Kelly Park, across the street from the high school. “Where are our representatives?” asked Silvia Torres, contrasting the $3 million project to the $30 million TIF subsidy  for a plaza at a downtown riverfront development.
(It may be worth noting that the city funding for a wealthy Loop developer is twice the amount of state funding now budgeted for scores of community organizations fighting to keep young people alive.)
Kelly Park’s playing field is studded with rocks and concrete and a portion of it with poor drainage “becomes a swamp in the spring,” said Sara Reschly, BPNC’s Safety Net Works coordinator. And it’s laid out in a baseball diamond, while the high school needs it for football and soccer.
Kellly High has a championship soccer team, but has had to travel a mile away to McKinley Park to play. But that’s “not safe for all the players,” because it crosses gang boundaries, she said.
Last year one team member was jumped and beaten while walking with his family in the parking lot before a game, she said, and at another game, a “masked person” threatened to kill the team members and the coach if they came back to the park.