By Kendra Wilson
There are many untold Chicago stories that deserve to be shared. The tale of Tia and Tamara Jordan is one of them that shows hope and the importance of intensive mentoring.
Now 20, Tia and Tamara just completed their first year in college. The twins, who grew up in many homes and apartments on Chicago’s south side, have received support since their freshman year in high school from Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc. 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 while connecting them and their parents/guardians to tools to help firm their foundation.
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 and other out-of-home placements. While YAP continues its partnerships with local youth justice and social services systems, it also partners with schools and other nonprofit organizations working to reduce violence in the city.
By the time the girls met their YAP Advocate LaNita Reed, they had already overcome a lot. Before their fifth birthday, they had experienced the death of their mother. Their grandmother and older sister, who worked full-time as a certified nurse’s aide, were their primary guardians. On weekends, they were with their stepfather, a cancer survivor who continued to battle seizures and other health problems.
The family support system was strong but strained, Reed said. “Their sister was doing the best she could but there were seven siblings.”
Tia said the family endured numerous evictions.
“I stayed in trouble in school and was headed down the wrong road,” Tamara said.
Reed worked with her YAP teammates to connect the twins and their family to community resources.
“She knows a lot of people and made sure we had support,” Tia said.
Reed and initially a fellow YAP Advocate met with the girls regularly. The twins were strong students and while the Advocates encouraged the girls to continue to study hard, they also made sure they were active in sports. Tia played basketball and volleyball and ran on her school’s cross-country team. Tamara developed a passion for dance.
About a year after the twins met Reed, they learned their father’s cancer had returned. As he began chemotherapy treatments, Tia and Tamara became his primary caregivers. It was a lot of responsibility for 15-year-olds.
“While in YAP, I worked on my attitude and other things I needed help with. My Advocates helped me along the way with these roadblocks in life and mistakes,” Tamara said. “They helped me get jobs and helped me decide on my goals.”
The girls tried to maintain as normal a high school life as they could. But that, too, was difficult. One day during their junior year, Tamara was at a party where word got around that there might be a shooting. She was running to the bus stop, trying to avoid trouble when she took a bullet to the back.
“She didn’t know she was shot until she stopped running. The bullet went through her stomach,” Tia said. “She was in the hospital for two to three months. It was so hard for her.”
Meantime, the girls’ father’s health problems got worse.
“He had a heart attack in the bathroom. We found him on the floor. Then he had brain cancer and was paralyzed on the left side from a stroke.
He eventually became terminally ill.
“When my dad died, she [Reed] would come and cook for us,” Tia said. “She even came to the funeral with us.”
Reed made sure the girls were supported through their grief. She also connected them with tools to ensure that they continued to study hard, took their college entrance exams and applied for as many schools as possible.
Tamara graduated third in her class; Tia was valedictorian. Tamara was accepted at Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama. With a recommendation from Reed, she applied for and received the YAP Tom Jeffers Endowment Fund Scholarship, a $1,000 award to assist with her college expenses.
“When I started YAP, I was saying things like I want to work a 9-5 weekly after high school. I was not thinking about college,” Tamara said.
Tia was accepted at Marian University in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin on a basketball scholarship.
While their formal enrollment in YAP ended when they finished high school, the twins have maintained a strong relationship with Reed and YAP.
Tia is especially grateful that Reed was there for her during her first semester when her college basketball coach told her that she was too aggressive. She cried after every game when she got no playing time.
“Ms. LaNita said you better not come home and do nothing. If you leave, you’re going to go to school somewhere.”
Tia toughed it out — even after suffering a concussion from a volleyball practice injury her second semester. Still she finished the year with a 3.3 first semester and 2.9 GPA her second semester. She is determined to continue working on her character to win a place as an active player on her team.
Tamara also did well and said because of YAP, she looks at her life – her future – entirely differently.
“I want to be something in life and make others proud of me and my decisions. My goal is to finish college and have my own dance studio for kids and adults because I want to help others express their feelings in dancing in ways that are happy, emotional and creative. I just want to experience something new and fall into a positive trap instead of the negative.”
The girls recently returned home from college to Chicago where they are both working summer jobs; Tamara at a factory, and Tia at McDonald’s. They will apply for the YAP scholarship to help with expenses that their summer jobs and other financial aid won’t cover.
“They are two of the sweetest most determined and dedicated young ladies I’ve come across,” Reed said. “They are making it, not unharmed, but alive and thriving for greatness, despite all that’s happened to them. I’m honored to have been able to watch them as they are beating the odds with their small, but strong family support system and help from YAP.”
To learn more about YAP, please visit www.YAPInc.org.