Breana Brown, a south side native, didn’t think college was a possibility for her growing up. Living with her grandmother and 10 other cousins, brothers, and sisters, and faced with the violence she saw every day in her community, the furthest ahead she thought was high school graduation.
However, when it came time to begin high school, Breana enrolled in Gary Comer College Prep, a part of the Noble Network of Charter School Network, and became involved in many programs at the Gary Comer Youth Center (GCYC), an opportunity hub in Chicago’s Grand Crossing neighborhood. GCYC equips students with the tools and resources necessary to graduate high school prepared for college and careers, while also providing a safe and supportive environment for youth. The Center has a variety of programs that provide youth the opportunity to gain experience in fields they are passionate in. Brown was a member of Green Teens, a program centered around urban gardening, and Free Spirit Media, a digital news team.
“When I came to GCYC I was focused on my immediate education as far as high school and getting through the next few years,” Brown says. “The Center encouraged me to see a broader view, looking further into my future to think about college and what it would take to get to that point.”
With the help of GCYC’s college preparatory programs and supportive mentors, Brown began touring colleges, working on applications, and searching for scholarships.
“Comer made my dream of going to college believable,” she says.
Brown graduated from Gary Comer College Prep in 2012 and began attending Illinois State University (ISU) the following fall. While at school, Brown found herself facing two life-altering challenges. Her brother, the only male figure in her life, was killed due to Chicago’s gun violence. Around the same time, Brown gave birth to her son, Jehrico.
“I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m not going back to school. I don’t know how I will function. I don’t know if I will be physically or emotionally able to do it,’” Brown says. “But, even when I felt like giving up, GCYC never left my side.”
Even though Brown had completed her programming at GCYC, her mentors provided her with support, love, and care. They encouraged her to continue classes and FaceTimed her frequently to see how everything was going.
“With their support I was able to make it through college, one of the roughest times of my life,” Brown says. In spring 2017, Brown graduated from ISU with her bachelor’s degree in English Studies. She is now an Admissions Counselor at Lincoln College.
According to the National College Research Center, roughly 24 percent of students from low-income high schools graduate from college. Teen mothers face even lower odds of obtaining a college degree — research estimates that less than 2 percent do so before they turn 30 years old. Brown’s story shows the power of opportunity and a strong support system.
“GCYC played a tremendous role in my success,” Brown says. “They do more than provide support to students; they pull us in and make us a part of their lives. It’s a relationship that lasts far beyond high school graduation and college acceptance.”
The Gary Comer Youth Center will hold its Sixth Annual Benefit Luncheon on Friday, Oct. 12 at Fairmont Chicago. The event serves as the Foundation’s largest fundraiser and monies raised will support programs, like those Brown was involved in, that allow students the opportunity the widen their skillset and learn more about careers they are passionate in. The event will feature stories from young adults who have benefitted from its programming. David Simas, the CEO of the Obama Foundation, will give the keynote address and Breana will share more about her story.
If you are interested in getting involved with the Center, there are many volunteer opportunities, ranging from mentoring to assisting in college application and helping students with homework. Visit GCYC’s website to get involved.
“The work the Gary Comer Youth Center does to support students in their educational and career goals is invaluable,” Brown says. “They provide the opportunities that youth are hungry for, showing them that not only are their dreams possible, but demonstrating clear methods for them to achieve their goals. They’re helping redefine what each student views as possible for themselves.”