BUILD has been lifting up youth in Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods since 1969. It started with street violence intervention and gang detachments, but has now expanded to after-school programs; academic and college counseling; art, music, and sports leagues; community outreach; and mental health care. BUILD youth were teens and tweens growing up in the constant trauma of gun violence, from difficult homes, and at the highest risk of losing the battle with the streets. Referrals came from frustrated school principals, probation officers, anxious parents, and even police who would bring someone right through our front doors, saying “I really don’t want to arrest this kid. Work with him.”
In other words, BUILD has always worked with the young people too many others had given up on. Over more than fifty years, we’ve helped thousands of youth escape gangs and transform their lives. In 2019, 99% of kids in our after-school prevention programs successfully avoided gangs, and 84% of BUILD’s court-involved youth weren’t arrested again – more than double the state average of 40%.
BUILD does it by providing safe spaces and activities, and wrapping each young person in a customized bundle of support: counseling, a job, a group of positive friends, the chance to try things like art or gardening. They start healing, they go to college. They became born leaders, and mentors to younger kids. They built bright futures. “Potential doesn’t discriminate,” the saying goes around BUILD, “neither should opportunity.”
When the threat of COVID-19 arrived in early March, BUILD staff were intensively working with over 2,500 young people, with nearly 100 coming in and out of their Austin headquarters each day. The need for shutdown was clear – most of our community was high-risk. However, BUILD mentors knew it was devastating for their cohorts: suddenly cut off from the haven of the youth center and its teams of counselors, teachers, and coaches, many were now confined to homes that were not healthy or safe. Young people were scared, confused, and anxious about losing all the progress they have fought so hard to make – especially in school.
Over the last month, BUILD has taken all our programming online, and mentors also connect regularly with individuals with phone calls and texts. Mentors have been using multiple technology platform – from private InstaHubs and Facebook groups to GroupMe and Discord – to create online spaces that help their mentees feel loved, supported, and safe. BUILD’s YouTube channel is now “BUILD TV”, a regular schedule of check-ins and activities with familiar faces. BUILD teams have also been assembling home activity kits of books and puzzles and delivering them to homebound youth to better pass the time. Clinical therapists have been reaching out to all current and former clients, checking in and helping navigate crises. These young people are facing more challenges than ever, but they do not face them alone. We are their lifelines, and we will not let go.
To keep the work going, BUILD’s annual gala has gone virtual: visit www.buildchicago.org and BUILD’s social media April 24 – May 1 to join in the week of stories and art.