More than 30 years ago, a group of medical students at Northwestern University started a youth development program with the goal of improving the lives of children living in poverty.
“We realized early on that visiting a healthy child for a year was not enough to improve the health of a child, especially a poor child,” said Dr Karen Sheehan, l a co-founder of Chicago Youth Programs and an emergency physician. at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago.
Childhood poverty is a strong predictor of poor health, according to Sheehan, who said children may not have access to healthy food, educational opportunities and specialists.
Through the youth development program, “we have tried to break down these limitations and empower children to lead healthy lives by giving them access to opportunities they might not otherwise have,” said she declared. “We have developed a program to meet all of the child’s needs.”
New research, published online in the peer-reviewed journal BMC Public Health, finds that such a program that provided young people living in poverty with long-term support is associated with reduced poverty in early life. adult life.
Founded in 1984, the Cabrini-Green Youth Program offered free recreational activities, reading, tutoring, college prep, and career counseling in a safe, nurturing space, as well as a medical clinic. Since then, the program has grown to become Chicago Youth Programs, which serves youth and families in at least 30 of the city’s 50 neighborhoods.
Sheehan, along with her co-authors, examined the long-term impacts of the Cabrini-Green youth program that served young people living in and around the segregated housing project who had a history of community violence.
“A 6-year-old girl could attend tutoring on Monday, be seen at the (medical) clinic on Tuesday if needed, tutor on Wednesday and participate in a recreational program on Saturday,” Sheehan said. “We work very intensively with children from birth through college age and support their developmental needs along the way.”
Participants typically spend eight to 10 years in the program, according to Sheehan.
The researchers interviewed 191 people born between 1970 and 1995 who entered the program at age 16 or earlier and who participated in the program for at least two years before the demolition of the Cabrini-Green houses in 2011, and the compared 143 people who didn’t participate in the program, but also lived in the housing project.
“A great advantage”
Both groups identified as primarily black and African American and reported similar experiences of neighborhood violence growing up, according to the 33-year follow-up study that found program participants graduated from college twice more than their peers who did not participate. in the program (24% versus 12%).
“I think it’s huge because when these young people were growing up in Cabrini-Green… few people had graduated from high school and even fewer from college at the time,” Sheehan said.
Ernest “EJ” Willingham, 19, who had been in the youth development program since birth in the Cabrini-Green homes, agreed.
“There aren’t a lot of people in my community who have gone to college,” said Willingham, who is a rising junior at Northeastern University in Boston and was recently accepted to the Icahn School of Medicine in Boston. Mount Sinai.
Although he has yet to choose a medical specialty, Willingham is committed to serving those in need based on his own experiences with staff at the Chicago Youth Programs Medical Clinic.
“One of the most remarkable things I can say about Chicago’s youth programs is the continuity of care, and I always remember having the same caregivers, which I think is very important. to have an effective patient-provider relationship,” he said. adding that clinic staff were always respectful and eager to answer her questions.
“Chicago’s youth programs have been a great benefit to me,” he added. “I want to go to a community that is underserved, impoverished and lacks the necessary health care resources. I want to fill that void. »
Atlanta resident Diamond McNulty, 35, who grew up in Cabrini-Green homes and runs several businesses, including a restaurant business and a culinary education business, also attributes his success to Chicago youth programs .
“I had access to successful mentors in school, which was great to see because it sparked a burning desire in me – it showed me what is possible,” McNulty said, adding that the program had exposed him to different possibilities and opportunities than he ever imagined, including his first experience in an upscale restaurant.
McNulty was able to pursue a culinary arts education at Kendall College, thanks to a combination of support from Chicago Youth Programs, an angel investor, and $24,000 in prizes that McNulty won in a cooking competition.
“Chicago’s youth programs equipped me for college,” he said.
The study also found that program participants were more likely to have saved money at the end of each month and said their standard of living was “much better or a little better” compared to their parents. at a similar age to the control group.
These results illustrate how the program is working to end generational poverty, according to Sheehan. “Once you change (someone’s) life trajectory, it influences the next generation,” she said, adding that the participants’ children “have already taken a step forward.”
‘It’s not about where to start’
While some may say that youth development programs only enroll people who would do well without them, Sheehan doesn’t believe this is the case based on the study’s findings that participants in the program were more likely to have experienced childhood abuse and spent time in a correctional facility compared to the control group.
“What that meant to me was that it’s validation — we didn’t pick the icing on the cake. We worked with kids who needed help,” Sheehan said. weren’t straight students going to Harvard no matter what.”
While the findings about abuse and time spent in correctional facilities surprised Sheehan, she says these differences could be due to sampling bias and participants’ willingness to share this information with researchers. Other limitations of the study include sample size and the ability to trace former participants.
Despite the limitations, “I think our study is a great example for saying that youth development programs work,” Sheehan said. “It’s not rocket science. If you want to help children thrive in Chicago, you need to provide them with safe spaces, make a long-term commitment – which is a challenge for us in Chicago – and also provide safe and nurturing relationships with caring adults.
McNulty and Willingham say they can’t imagine where they would be in life without Chicago’s youth programs.
“It’s hard to imagine. … If not for the program, I probably would have been exposed to gangs and drugs and all that other stuff,” said McNulty, who remains involved with Chicago’s youth programs and sits on its board of directors. “The Chicago youth programs work. The formula works. I am proof that it works… and I want to ensure the success of the young people who arrive behind me.
Willingham echoed McNulty.
“It’s not about knowing where to start. It’s about where you end up,” he said. “My beginnings began in Cabrini-Green, a place where poverty, where disenfranchisement, where crime, where violence played a big role in the lives of so many people. Because of programs like Chicago Youth Programs, it didn’t determine the trajectory of my life.
Contact Kristen Thometz: @kristenthometz | (773) 509-5452 | [email protected]