By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
When it was time to act, they sprang into action. One lost his mom at 12, and went from being a gang leader to a young boxer with a purpose. Another founded a homeless program that has served nearly 2,000 people in the past two years. One woman founded a college program that turned at risk youth into lawyers and business professionals with advanced degrees.
They are Crusaders who dared to do something as poverty, rising unemployment, and gun violence afflicted their neighborhoods.
At a time when many impoverished Chicago residents stay imprisoned in their homes and apathy spreads among the affluent, individuals young and old, Black and Hispanic unsung heroes make selfless decisions that impact hundreds, even thousands of people who have nowhere to turn or to go when they need help.
Day after day, month after month and year after year, they sacrifice their time and energy in an unsung role that at many times seems like a thankless one.
But on May 22 at the DuSable Museum of African American History, Chicago will know who they are when the Chicago Crusader and Go Airport Express presents its 24th annual “Heroes in the Hood” awards ceremony, which honors volunteers and tireless activists who have made a difference in their communities. On that night, the Crusader and several organizations will name some of the most deserving Heroes from this year’s pool of candidates.
While “Heroes in the Hood” can seem like a competition, the annual affair has become a proud celebration of the most inspiring community activism and volunteerism by ordinary adults and teenagers who achieve extraordinary goals that leave one awestruck.
To date, more than 500 teenagers in Chicago have been honored for helping disadvantaged neighborhoods.
A panel of civic leaders and sponsor representatives evaluated candidates who were nominated by school administrators and community leaders.
As in past years, this year’s “Heroes in the ‘Hood” will honor one male and one female teenager, a teen group and an adult “Stop the Violence” group.
In 2016, the adult group chosen was Purpose Over Pain, a group of mothers whose children were murdered through senseless violence.
While this year’s recipients won’t be known until the night of the awards ceremony, this fact is certain: many of this year’s Heroes achieved big, after dreaming big. For some the resources were small.
For the past eight years at the Chicago Youth Center-Sidney Epstein Center, “Heroes in the Hood” nominee Kimberly George has steered dozens of teenagers from gun violence. She created a college and career readiness program that has delivered big results. Her program has helped send 60 youths from North Lawndale to colleges throughout the country. About 18 of them are pursuing advanced degrees in graduate schools and law schools. Some are working in well-paying professional careers.
George also assists with the organization’s Lock In to Lock Out event, where youth are locked in overnight as they participate in workshops and address community issues such as homelessness and violence on social media. In 2016 at the White House, George, her staff and six children received the Presidential Environmental Award for their Peace Garden in Chicago. Teens help harvest vegetables as an alternative activity to the city’s dangerous streets.
Another 2017 nominee is Page May, co-founder of Assata’s Daughters, an organization that was formed in March 2015 to address a shortage in programming and community activities for young Black women in Chicago. Assata’s Daughters offers free youth programs for young Black girls and women ages 4 to 19. The programs teach self-empowerment, Black history and community organizing.
Assata’s Daughters is named after Assata Olugbala Shakur, a Black activist and member of the former Black Panther Party (BPP) and Black Liberation Army (BLA).
Recently, Assata’s Daughters participated in a campaign to free Bresha Meadows, a 14-year-old Black girl in Ohio who killed her mother’s alleged abuser. Bresha has been imprisoned since the killing but was recently offered a plea deal that could set her free.
In the West Pullman neighborhood, Geri Jones is executive director at St. Titus One Youth Anti-Violence & Mentoring Program, an organization that provides a positive, safe and enriching environment for underserved youth. The program aims to help young Black males. According to statistics cited by St. Titus One, if a child cannot read well by the 3rd grade, he will most likely become incarcerated at some stage in his life.
St. Titus One provides tutoring and mentoring programs and addresses key life issues that help participants excel academically and personally. Participants also receive help with anger management, conflict resolution, self-esteem and respect for others.
In the teenage category, life has been an intense fight for 16-year-old Ivry Hall. He is a Golden Gloves Champion and a leader at the Crusher Club in Englewood. Ivry’s mother died when he was just 12 years old. He was once a leader of a gang, but now Ivry trains and mentor other boys.
While it may take many people a long time to get involved in the community, teen nominee Kaleb Autman, 15, for years has been an activist campaigning for change. While teenagers are preoccupied with going to the movies, malls and parks, Autman spends his time documenting and protesting police brutality. At a young age, Autman is a crusading journalist and photographer who pushes the boundaries of activism in addressing issues regarding the Chicago Police Department. His powerful photography documents the injustices of unfair policing and the activists who speak out against it.
Nominee Eric Coleman, 18, has improved the culture of his school, TEAM Englewood as a Peace Ambassador. Through buildOn, he helped build schools in Nicaragua. Colleagues say Eric is a dedicated student leader who works hard but still spend hours helping other students achieve.
With Chicago’s spiraling homeless population Malik Anthony James, 19, decided that something had to be done to help the poor. He created the Mock Trial Hunger Project, a program that blossomed into a charity that provided food, clothing and toiletries to over 1,800 men, women and children in the past two years.
Isabella Garcia-Ding, 15 has been a crusader against hunger with her “Give 3K Food Pantry.” She enlisted volunteers from the ROTC to organize a turkey drive that gave groceries and 75 turkeys to 80 families.
“When I saw the faces of these families in line, waiting for food, I realized I changed someone’s life in some way,” Isabella said after her nomination. “I learned that a small idea can turn into something big if you try.”
For the past two years, 16 year old Leslie Aguilera has run a tutoring center with her sister Nancy from their home, every Monday and Thursday after school. Leslie also volunteers her time with the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.
Monserrat Velasco, 18 infuses art with activism. During the last four years at George Washington High School, Velasco has created works of art to beautify the school environment. A student who earns exceptional grades, Monserrat creates paintings to support the LGBT community.
Sydnee Moore, 18 has been accepted to six universities in Illinois and the U.S. Sydnee is working on a data-driven project to address the current time restrictions of the school day, an issue she plans to present to the Chicago Public School board.
At 18, Tiesha Miller will spend this summer as an intern with the Chicago Teacher’s Union, focusing on expanding restorative justice work across Chicago Public Schools. For the second year, she has served as a school Peace Ambassador and is currently organizing a “Ladies Day” to improve relationships and self-esteem among girls in TEAM Englewood High School. She hopes the effort will decrease the number of fights she has seen this year at her school. After careful observation, Tiesha came to the conclusion that relationship building and self-esteem were key issues in nourishing healthy relationships among teens.
Tyreese Alexander, 16 has been the top Teen volunteer who has given more than 50 hours in service at the CYC Sidney Epstein Youth Center. Whenever help is needed, colleagues say Tyreese is the first to volunteer. Alexander helped plan and implement an overnight Teen LockIn that addressed ways to promote nonviolence to his peers. A strong role model, Tyreese juggles his school, Afterschool Matters, and Windy City Harvest jobs.
Quinlan Uchechi, 17 has been making a difference since he was a freshman in high school. During his sophomore year, he volunteered for Play for Peace, a program dedicated to helping kindergarteners and first graders. Serving as a mentor, Quinlan and other volunteers forged “big brother, big sister relationships.”
At 17, Juliana Hernandez is part of the group Victory Angels, a non-profit organization that helps families with food, clothing, air conditioning, stoves and medical equipment. For three consecutive years, Juliana participated in the Lead2Feed Challenge. Juliana’s group helped organize a diaper drive for a teen parenting program in the Roseland community.
Many Chicagoans remember the day 10 years ago, when Terrell Bosley was shot and killed outside a church on Chicago’s Far South Side. A freshman at Olive Harvey College, Bosley was heading into choir practice at the Lights of Zion Missionary Bible Church on Halsted and 116th streets when he and a group of friends were shot at while unloading equipment from a car. Since his brother’s murder, Trevon Bosley, 18 has been on a crusade to educate people about gun violence. He spoke on the topic at one of former President Barack Obama’s town hall meetings. Trevon is a member of B.R.A.V.E. (Bold Resistance Against Violence) Youth Leaders. The group is actively involved in anti-gun violence prevention.
Ezequiel Bahena, 17, has volunteered in the community since the sixth grade as an assistant basketball coach. He has helped influence players to be great on the court and in the classroom as well. During the summer, Ezequiel serves at the Community Garden managed by Enlace. Here, Ezequiel harvests crops including corn, lettuce, strawberries and vegetables.
Malcolm Elliot, 17, has completed over 565 hours of community service, with buildOn, an organization that engages youth through programs in 10 high schools, many of them situated in Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods, such as Englewood, Garfield Park, and Austin. Malcolm has participated in a variety of projects from bingo, to distributing food at the local food depository, to cooking for and serving the homeless. Malcolm’s favorite program is the “Increase the Peace” program. Malcolm is planning an event with his peers, based on his experience to engage law enforcement and local teenagers in a community basketball competition.