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Chicago Organization Empowers Youth

To address the multi-faceted issue of youth gun violence, United Church of Christ-related UCAN knows it has to take more than one approach to the problem.

Chicago Organization Empowers Youth

Norman Kerr, UCAN's vice president for violence prevention. (Photo by Jason Kaczorowski. Copyright by CHHSM. Used with permission.

UCAN, a Chicago organization that serves more than 10,000 at-risk youth, starts in the schools. Through its Hands Without Guns program, mentors help high school students explore alternatives to violence.

The nonprofit also reaches out to youth who are involved in the criminal justice system, working through public defenders to help before their problems are exacerbated by further charges.

In July, UCAN moved from Chicago’s North Side to its newly completed headquarters in a West Side neighborhood, enabling it to reach high-risk youth from another angle – inside their own community.

“Looking at the level of violence in North Lawndale, we want to focus more on community-level violence prevention,” says Norman Kerr, vice president for violence prevention at UCAN. “We can really go straight to the population that needs intervention.”

UCAN’s work is sorely needed. Chicago has been beleaguered by some of the worst increases in gun violence in the country. As of June 1, the number of first-degree homicides is 48 percent greater than last year. Over the course of seven days this August, 99 people were shot. That week included the city’s deadliest day in 13 years, when 19 people were shot and nine of them killed.

UCAN serves Chicago-area youth through innovative services like its Hands Without Guns program.

In the North Lawndale community, thousands of youth are traumatized by the violence, not to mention factors that contribute to the situation like drug abuse or its consequences, or the incarceration of parents.

“These are kids who really don’t know how to solve conflicts in any other way than with violence,” Kerr says.

One run-in with the law often turns into several, and incarceration does little to address underlying issues. Without help, youth can suddenly find themselves far down a criminal path, Kerr says. That’s where UCAN steps in, to stop that cycle among youth who are most susceptible to gun violence.

The organization’s street-smart mindset is effective in tackling the problem. Kerr and his staff knew that the youth they needed to reach wouldn’t just walk to UCAN’s front door. So using its community-level empowerment model, UCAN recruits youth development coaches from within the community to identify and help at-risk youth.

Youth development coaches connect with young people to identify what’s holding them back and how to overcome problems with an eye toward the future.

“The coach works with them on their various goals: academic goals, living situation goals, employment goals, criminal justice, such as not getting re-arrested. Or getting connected to caring adults in the community,” Kerr says.

And the results are noticeable, he says.

“We’ve seen 40 percent increases in engagement in school," Kerr says. "We’ve seen 70 percent increases in our youth working toward their goals, and we’ve seen 70 percent of them become engaged with other programs. When we started working with them, only 6 percent were involved in any other programs.”

UCAN is also effective through targeted advocacy for the area’s populations at highest risk.

“We’re really stringent upon the criteria that we use and the population that we work with,” Kerr says. “A lot of kids really just need a caring adult, somebody who can check in with them from time to time, kids who aren’t necessarily on the trajectory to be violent.”

As part of its commitment to take on daunting mental health issues, UCAN uses a screening process to detect when young people have experienced trauma that could lead them down a dangerous path. If the results show that someone is seriously troubled, he or she is further assessed by an on-site clinician, who then determines whether to refer for further treatment.

Kerr says that 45 percent of the youth UCAN serves are referred to treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues. That number is significant considering the powerful stigma that surrounds seeking mental health services, he says. Youth development coaches also correct misinformation about mental health and make treatment a more amenable option.

Kerr understands the desire for immediate solutions to curb gun violence, but says real change means tackling the deeper mental health issues.

“A young person is not going to be able to hold a job if they have trauma and it’s manifesting a certain way," he says. "They’re not going to be able to stay in school, have good relationships. They’re not going to be able to calm themselves down when somebody upsets them, and they might have access to a gun.”

Kerr adds that blame and scorn toward young people can also harm efforts to curb gun violence. As UCAN brings itself closer to the community it serves, Kerr hopes to foster understanding and compassion for youth.

“We’re all taking ownership around this and saying there’s a role for all of us; that these young people can’t deal by themselves, and that we can’t abandon them," he says.