Teen REACH Credit: Photo by John Booz

Near one wall at Chicago Commons’ Paulo Freire Family Center hangs a quilt with pictures of a vision of peace – harmonious families, views of the Earth from space, and a cut-out heart comprised of half a Mexican flag, half an American one. Next to this a poster board with pictures of stenciled skulls, made to celebrate the Mexican holiday “Day of the Dead.”

During a recent “Stop the Violence Summit Day,” teens from the after-school program Teen REACH showed off this and other artwork. But the afternoon was bittersweet. One student, 17-year-old Tilden High School sophomore Gamaliel Toscano, had been shot to death on his way home from school.

“Some of our students are scared to cross the street to our program because they are going to a different gang [territory],” says Eddie Anguiano, the center’s director of youth services. Yet teens in the program are expected to attend two or three times a week.

Such fears about safety keep some teens from participating in after-school programs. But teenagers who do show up say that there are reasons why they keep coming and others don’t.

Take Tanya Magallon, a 15-year-old student and an 8th-grader at Hamline Elementary in New City. Tanya enjoys the summer and weekend outings sponsored by the program, including bowling days and trips to the Haunted Trails amusement park.

“It helps us with our homework, it keeps us out of the streets,” she says. “I like it because I know I have somewhere to go where I won’t be bored.”

But Tanya’s efforts to get friends to come have fallen flat. “They say it sounds boring,” she says. She has suggestions for enticing more students to participate.

“(After-school programs) should have some meetings in school, during the school day. Put it in the news. Take pictures of what we do,” Tanya says.

Javier Arriaga, a quiet 14-year-old student who is in the 9th grade at Benito Juarez Community Academy in Pilsen, says the program is “a distraction from getting involved in gangs or drugs. But there are little kids in the program, (and some) teens don’t want to be with them.”

In Woodlawn, another Teen REACH program is located on the third floor of an old church. A classroom is set up with couches, computers and tables with board games.
On a computer, some of the teens review videos they have worked on.

Darnell Grigler, an 18-year-old student at Kennedy-King College in Englewood, says the opportunity to work on documentaries is one of his favorite parts of the program.

 “We did interviews about the violence in our neighborhood and our community,” Darnell says. “I got to say what was really on my mind.”

But he realizes that most other teens aren’t having the same experiences.

“They don’t have a person to talk to who knows about it,” Grigler says.

Before long, Bryan Echols—the executive director of Metropolitan Area Group for Igniting Civilization, which runs the program – gathers the teens into a circle.

He is about to launch them on a project – the third annual Teen Test Day, a health promotion event where more than 1,000 students a year get free screenings for HIV, sexually-transmitted diseases, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other conditions. They also get to play games and hear a concert.

Students from MAGIC and other community organizations, Echols explains, will play the role of ambassadors by promoting the event on their Facebook and MySpace pages, serving as guides during the event and providing education about health issues.

“We just want to give you the right information, because you are informing your peers,” Echols says.

Jeremiah DeBerry, a 14-year-old who is in the 8th grade at Summers Preparatory School in Roseland, says taking part in MAGIC’s program has improved his attitude. He looks up to others in the group, and feels like he can learn from them.

“When somebody says something to me, now, I want to take it into consideration instead of getting mad about it,” Jeremiah says.

But, he adds, some students have the mistaken perception that after-school programs are “like going to another school.”

More specialized choices that appeal to teens’ interests would help boost recruitment, he says. “So if someone likes basketball, they can go to a basketball program. If they like drawing, they can go to art.”

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