By Kelly D. Williams
How gun violence impacts kids like 17-year-old Lei’Anna Young is not so obvious. Lei’Anna is quiet and spends most of her time alone. Unless she’s performing with her school dance team, she avoids attention. But if you give her time to trust you, she’ll open up and say a lot and her trauma will become all too real.
That’s what Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc., Advocate Gia Cephas did back in March when she met the Chicago Vocational High School (CVS) junior. YAP’s paid advocate-mentors, recruited from the neighborhoods they serve, 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.
“Before YAP, I kept to myself; I didn’t like groups. I would have been a loner all four years,” Lei’Anna said. “I didn’t have a lot of friends. I was living a boring depressing life.”
YAP’s services are based on its 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 partnership with local youth justice and child welfare systems, a growing number of schools and organizations working to reduce violence in the city also connect Chicago youth to YAP. Lei’Anna said she got involved when her school dean saw her potential. The referral came to the nonprofit through the school’s partnership with Chicago Beyond.
Lei’Anna said her grandmother, who is also raising her brother and sister, keeps the children inside as much as possible to protect them. “It can be really lonely,” Lei’Anna aid. “When it’s too quiet and I’m hearing or seeing something about murder, it’s depressing.
Gia heard and felt Lei ’Anna’s desire for opportunities to learn and grow and make connections. She also realized that the best way to support and mentor Lei’Anna was by ensuring that she had buy-in from her family.
“Gia met my grandmother the third week and my younger sister at the same time. She’s very open and she’s like family already. She’s easy to communicate with,” Lei’Anna said.
Gia connects Lei’Anna with resources to help her cope with her feelings and gives her outlets to identify, explore and realize her gifts and talents. In addition to the one-to-one mentoring, Gia gives Lei’Anna opportunities to interact with other YAP participants in group sessions and field trips.
“Now that I’m in YAP, I have opportunities to talk to people and have fun,” she said. “I’m meeting a lot of kids and learning that whether we’ve been in trouble or not, we all want more. Other programs might take you off the streets by putting you in a youth center or something; but YAP gives you tools you can use all the time.”
Lei’Anna told Gia she loves cosmetology and dance — in particular, choreography. Now she also realizes she wants to go to college so that she can learn how to bring both talents together and build a business where she can be her own boss and give jobs to others.
One of Lei’Anna’s most memorable YAP experiences so far was a recent visit to Springfield where youth and their advocates got an opportunity to use their leadership skills. It was a chance to show and tell lawmakers why they should support the intensive mentorship program.
“Being with other YAP kids, I don’t worry about whose around. I feel safe and I’m happy. I can see myself being who I really am,” she said. “I’m a good person, especially when I have the chance to do things that let me share and open up.
Beyond the fun and learning, Lei’Anna said her time in YAP makes her feel healthier, stronger and more empowered.
“With YAP — with Gia — life is just better. Every day is a session,” she said with a giggle.