As Chicagoans took to the streets Thursday, June 6, to race against gun violence in “Strides for Peace,” they knew that for each of the city’s gun violence tragedies, thanks to the organizations they are supporting, there are many more stories of hope. Carnell Brown’s journey is one of them.
At age 20, Carnell says his life has not been easy. Five years ago, he was locked up for assault. But things are progressively getting better than he could have ever imagined. This week, Carnell was in Washington, D.C. meeting with Representative Danny Davis (D-IL) and Co-Chair of the Bipartisan Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth, Representative Karen Bass (D-CA).
Since he was 14, Carnell has lived in 30 foster homes and been enrolled in countless schools, some on Chicago’s south side and others on the west side, where he lives now. For the past four years, he has been enrolled in Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc.
YAP’s services are based on the nonprofit’s core model, introduced more than 13 years ago in Chicago, as a community-based alternative to youth incarceration. YAP empowers youth by assigning them to paid advocate-mentors from their neighborhoods who are trained to help young people identify and realize their strengths and connect them and their parents/guardians to tools to help firm their foundation.
Carnell said when he was introduced to YAP, he had no sense of direction. His YAP advocate, Marlon Rucker, spent a lot of time listening to him and when he saw him slipping, giving him tools to help him do better. He helped Carnell identify his leadership skills and has connected him to opportunities to fine-tune them.
He made sure Carnell was among the YAP participants on trips to Springfield where he got a chance to advocate on behalf of the unique intensive mentoring program.
Carnell’s recent visit to Washington was at the request of Chicago YAP Director April Curtis, who like Carnell, spent her childhood in foster care and has been an activist for foster youth. She wanted to make sure Carnell got a chance to speak at the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth Shadow Day.
“Since being involved in YAP, I haven’t been arrested; haven’t been in trouble and I stay busy. Instead of being on the streets, I’m playing basketball, studying, working and doing other positive things with Marlon,” Carnell said. “Now kids ask me what I’m doing so they can do it, too.”
While Carnell’s birth mother is outside of the city, Marlon makes sure he sees her at least once a month. That’s another thing that keeps Carnell motivated. “Things haven’t always been easy for her; but she’s doing pretty good now. She’s living with my sister and she’s really proud of me and happy to know I’m doing so well,” he said.
Carnell’s immediate goal is to complete high school. Then he will leverage some of the professional contacts he’s making through YAP to get recommendations for his college applications. “Having Marlon in my life is like having the father I didn’t have. I don’t want to let him down. YAP is family, too,” he said.
To learn more about YAP, visit YAPInc.org.