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Before a $1 million donation, Jennifer Maddox’s youth program rose above setbacks, tragedy and financial hardships

Chicago has been under tornado watches, storms and rain since last week.

Jennifer Maddox

But on the Monday morning of June 28, the skies were blue, and the sun was shining down on Jennifer Maddox and her staff at the Future Ties afterschool program at Parkway Gardens.

At approximately 8:38 a.m., the sound of a familiar bell rang in the parking lot of a vacant McDonald’s. It came from a thumping sound system and live broadcast from Wall Street that is some 800 miles away, in New York City.

After years of pain, heartache and tragedy, Maddox, a Chicago police officer and her crew, had finally achieved an elusive dream at Future Ties, one that was heralded on a national stage on the New York Stock Exchange. With much fanfare, they celebrated the dawn of a new era with a $1 million donation by Beachbody, a health and fitness company which achieved its own dreams by offering public stock on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol listing BODY.

As Beachbody CEO Carl Daikeler rang the iconic bell on the Exchange floor, about 100 Woodlawn youngsters rang small bells they were given along with fitness items, including water bottles, gym bags, fruit and snacks.

The biggest gift was the Future Ties’ $1 million donation from Beachbody. The gift will allow Maddox to move her Future Ties program from an 800-square-foot basement in Parkway Gardens to a 25,000-square-foot vacant Walgreens building at 63rd and King Drive.

To Maddox and her staff, the donation meant freedom, after being stuck in a facility for nearly 10 years that gave them little to no room for growth and opportunities.

Maddox and her staff had grown tired of Parkway Gardens’ owner, Related Midwest, the powerful Chicago developer, who made empty promises that included a bigger space. Despite her program gaining national prominence, Maddox was unable to secure financial help to move her program out of Parkway Gardens.

At times, says Maddox, she and her team felt trapped in a complex where teenagers were often exposed to crime and gun violence. One Future Ties staff member stayed with the program after losing her brother to gun violence in Parkway Gardens last year.

With little money, Maddox searched many places to find a new home nearby for her afterschool program. One option across the street on King Drive looked promising before things fell through. The owner of the long vacant McDonald’s near 63rd and King Drive didn’t even want to talk to her. But at Monday’s celebration, Maddox and her team were celebrating in that McDonald’s parking lot. They were vindicated. With their newly acquired Walgreens space visible in the background, they cheered and rang little red bells as if they were celebrating Juneteenth all over again.

“This has been a journey. I want to say thank you to the Woodlawn Parkway community for accepting us as partners in this journey because without you, there would be no us. There were many challenges. Doors were closed, but thanks to Beachbody, doors have been opened.”

Maddox said her program will move into the vacant Walgreens in August after they close on the deal. The move will cap a decade of persevering over adversity for Maddox and Future Ties.

Maddox said the $1 million donation came as a surprise. It happened in just three days last week and started when she was working the Go Campaign, a national organization that helps local non-profit institutions like Future Ties.

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BEACHBODY FOUNDATION HOSTS a free giveaway after donating $1 million to Jennifer Maddox and her Future Ties program at Parkway Gardens. (Photo by Keith Chambers)

An official from the Go Campaign told Maddox that Beachbody was on a nationwide search to donate $1 million to a non-profit. Maddox submitted a one-page profile and two days later, received a call from Beachbody. The organization asked more questions then read numerous stories on Maddox and her program’s successes. After realizing that Maddox’s organization was a good fit, they called Maddox to tell her that they were giving Future Ties $1 million. Maddox said she was at Future Ties’ community center in Parkway Gardens when she received the news.

“I started screaming. I ran back of the center,” Maddox told the Crusader. “The ladies thought something was wrong. They saw me crying. They kept asking me are you ok? Are you ok?”

To understand Maddox and her team’s joy is to know the pain and many setbacks and hardships they experienced in trying to help youth overcome the negative results of poverty and crime at Parkway Gardens.

For years Maddox drove an old, 2005 red Chevy van. In 2016, a man fired several bullets at the vehicle while Maddox was taking a 7-year-old boy home on the other side of Parkway Gardens. Maddox stopped the car, pushed the boy on the floor and lay on top of him to protect him from the gunfire. The incident left her shaken as she considered shutting down the program.

As Future Ties grew successful, drawing more children to its program, space became a problem. Future Ties remained the only safe gathering spot for youth at Parkway Gardens. Maddox was forced to turn away youth who wanted to be a part of her program. Assistants in Future Ties’ community center often taught elbow to elbow as they mentored kids.

Maddox said years ago Related Midwest promised her program another basement to meet the demand, but nothing happened. Maddox said she was unable to host outdoor events for her youth, but Related Midwest would string her along with the usual, “Well, we’ll see.”

“They said, we want to give you a new space,” Maddox said. “They made a bunch of promises but didn’t follow through.”

Crime and gangs remained a problem at Parkway Gardens. In 2016, 15-year-old De’Kayla Dansberry, a bright high school student, was stabbed to death at Parkway Gardens by a 13-year-old during a fight. She and her mother Tamika Gayden were both charged with first-degree murder.

With crime rising in Parkway Gardens, Related Midwest in 2017 erected an eight-foot gate around the massive complex, which takes up three city blocks. A 24-hour guardhouse was installed and residents were given a special key fob to open gates that lead to their homes. Maddox said despite being a police officer and founder of Future Ties, she was not allowed to enter the property sometimes as she was bringing in supplies for her community center.

Despite security measures, crime continued at Parkways Gardens. In February, 2020, a mass shooting at the complex injured three teenagers and three adults during a party. That same year, Darrell Wells, the 27-year-old brother of Shaquita Wells, a Future Ties staff assistant, was shot and killed at Parkway Gardens while visiting Chicago to attend the eighth-grade graduation of his niece. Shaquita continues on the staff of Future Ties, but the pain of her brother’s tragic death remains.

For six years Maddox and her team wanted to take the program’s youth to Six Flags Great America in north suburban Gurnee. But the program lacked the funds to make it happen. They reached out to community leaders to help with expenses to no avail. After the Crusader published an article about the problems, donations poured in to send youth to the popular amusement park.

The lack of space, problems with Related Midwest and rising crime led Maddox on a long search to find a bigger space for her program. But with limited funds, Maddox’s search for an affordable space was difficult. Things looked hopeful across the street at 65th and King Drive, where a limousine company was seeking to move from its building. After months of waiting for an answer, Maddox learned the company decided to stay.

Maddox also pursued the vacant McDonald’s building, which had been boarded up since the fast-food restaurant closed in 2015. Maddox said the building is owned by a private person who owns a chain of day care centers in the suburbs. Maddox said Future Ties made phone calls and sent certified letters to the owner, but the owner never responded to their requests.

“People would not believe what I and my staff have gone through,” Maddox said. “The disappointments. The broken promises. The kids asking when we were going to get a new space.”

Maddox and her program suffered these setbacks despite gaining local and national prominence. In 2017, Maddox was nominated for CNN’s “Hero of the Year Award.” The next year the Crusader honored Maddox and Future Ties with its “Stop the Violence Award” during its “Heroes in the Hood” ceremony. In 2018, Maddox ran for 20th ward alderman, losing to Jeanette Taylor.

In 2019, NBC’s Today Show surprised Maddox with a new SUV during a live broadcast the Friday before Mother’s Day. She now drives a red 2019 Ford EcoSport. Red is Maddox’s favorite color, and red was the color of the confetti that showered her and her team during Monday’s celebration.

Maddox formed Future Ties in 2011 after she saw the need while patrolling the streets and Parkway Gardens. Maddox realized that many youth never visited downtown or any part of the city outside the complex. She also saw a lack of positive role models and supervision at home. Maddox named the program Future Ties because of the ties or connections in the community that can help build a future for low-income, at-risk youth in underserved neighborhoods.

Most of Future Ties’ participants are youth who live in single, female-headed households in Parkway Gardens. In addition to mentoring and tutoring youth in academic subjects, Future Ties exposed youth to cultural and environmental opportunities on field trips across the city.

For the first time at the complex the program will include 17- to 18-year-olds as part of an expanded, seven-week paid summer program at Parkway Gardens. Today, the summer program has 40 kids. The after-school program provides services to 1,200 children.

With a bigger and better space at the former Walgreens store, a brighter future looms for Future Ties. The larger space will allow offices for services like mental health counseling, financial literacy classes, access to legal services and help with housing issues.

The space will also enable Future Ties to focus on tackling obesity and teaching young people about nutrition and how to live a healthy lifestyle. “That is the exact embodiment of what Beachbody has been about for 20 years — helping people get active, learn about nutrition and making them feel like there’s a community that cares about helping them succeed,” Beachbody CEO Carl Daikeler said.

Maddox said she is grateful for Related Midwest for their contributions to helping Future Ties, but she looks forward to ushering in a new era for the program with the $1 million donation. “I still can’t believe it. We’re blessed,” she said.

Thanks to the generosity of funding provided by The Field Foundation of Illinois, Inc. in producing this article.

 (Published in the Chicago Crusader Newspaper July 10, 2021)

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