National Impact Community: Chicago, IL
Creating Welcoming & Safe Spaces That Encourage Belonging and Celebrations
In the face of complex social, economic, and mental hardships, BUILD remained a continuous source of stability and comfort for its youth participants and families. As the pandemic closed in, the BUILD team demonstrated incredible ingenuity, innovation and care, as BUILD mentors harnessed all available resources to implement quality programming.
Creating Safe and Supportive Spaces
During the summer of 2020, BUILD was one of few organizations who were able to provide a safe, in-person summer camp for nearly 100 youth, ages 6-14 years old. The innovative tent camp provided meaningful engagement opportunities for participants to learn core values and be in welcoming and supportive spaces with caring adults. Apprentice Mentors served as camp counselors for younger children throughout the summer, putting their mentoring training into action as they created safe and reassuring spaces for youth experiencing a terrifying pandemic.
Youth Connectedness Is an Important Protective Factor for Health and Well-being
For older youth participants, BUILD staff made sure to stay consistently connected. Jeremy remembers the beginning of COVID: "At the beginning of the pandemic we called everyone daily. We could not be in the same space physically so we had to show even more effort….and we were stretched, and they (youth) saw the amount of effort we put in, and yes it was exhausting, but they saw a lot of people really go the extra mile to make sure that they felt cared about...so that's where that consistency comes from, we knew it was important because they’re in the middle of high school, and it's one of the most critical points.”
Build Relationships and Networks with Peers and Mentors
In a time when many young people were feeling isolated, BUILD mentors showed up. Adult mentors used the popular topic of sports to get MBK groups to connect to one another, share their feelings and discuss real-world issues. One small group even started working on a sports “Zoom Radio” show. "Our 16-19 year olds all loved talking about sports. They would meet with our mentors daily, and they discussed the games, had these long conversations. But also in those same conversations, they were discussing the things that were naturally occurring because of the state of the world and sports just happened to be the talking point around it. Youth were able to have a conversation about things that they love, but also were talking about the real things that were occurring in and outside of the game. It made them feel like, ‘we're not in this alone.’” By allowing young people to define their own conversations, they eventually got to very real places, engaging with powerful emotions and processing them in a healthy way. This is one way mentors were able to maintain positive and caring relationships with youth outside of their school settings.
Months into COVID a beloved staff member passed away who had worked at BUILD for over 30 years and had mentored thousands of young people. Jeremy remembers how youth and staff united to honor his life. "Our young people wanted to honor him with a short film, and we gave them all the encouragement and support they needed. They learned how to use the cameras, they figured out what kind of questions to ask, and who they wanted to talk to. It was amazing just to see our youth mentors from BUILD, showing support to the 12 and 13 year olds when this devastating loss happened. We made the film four months later, and it was part of our community healing process, but also one of the biggest displays of youth guiding each other through a time of mourning. When you're able to recognize and honor the impact that someone has had as a community, I think that says a lot about young people who are always hurting too, because these occurrences are happening every day, and it shows them that moving forward they can support each other differently. You saw that as time kind of went on."
Discover and Cultivate Talents, Passions, Skills, and Identities
One component of BUILD’s mentor apprenticeship program challenged participants to expand existing skills, gain confidence, and learn new skills and abilities. During the pandemic year, BUILD worked hard to bring these opportunities: examples included curating a film festival, creating their own short documentaries, immersing themselves in photography workshops, learning the banjo and drums, understanding the ins and outs of the stock market, and taking regular field trips to museums across Chicago.
The design of the program changed when COVID hit, as the previous curriculum obviously did not take into account the new reality young people were facing. In describing the shift, Carmen stated: “Before COVID we had a fixed curriculum that got implemented the same way across the board. But as COVID hit we had to change our mindset and approach - remaining focused on key developmental outcomes, but putting less emphasis on sticking to a fixed curriculum.” Mentors became flexible and creative, allowing for new ways to explore the foundational elements of the program, identity and values. Even in pandemic isolation, “we're going to be going deep, and thinking about who you are and who you want to be in this world, and what it means to give back and support others.”
Another focus was fun – something everyone needed more than ever. So when it was warm enough and safe the group engaged in activities centered around physical activity, and the arts. Carmen remembers: “we started by giving them the basketball and the softball and saying let's just let loose and have some fun – and sure enough, that helped a lot of those deeper discussions happen.”
There was always something for the young mentors to do. Mondays, youth played in the softball Peace Leagues, Tuesdays it was basketball. On Wednesdays youth were working on their film project, and Thursdays they were preparing for the neighborhood festival. The high levels of engagement and fun speak to the culture of BUILD as being an organization full of staff who can relate to the young people they serve. "I think we also pull from our own selves as youth, and there's a certain level of relating, we like to have fun, we want to bring smiles and good feelings and have a good time, I think that's important,” stated Carmen.
Cultivating Meaningful Connections: Family Relationships
BUILD also focused on building relationships with MBK youth families, participating in key moments whenever possible. Jeremy recounted one of his many prom send-off visits: "I went over to his (youth participant) house to take pictures for his prom send off, we're on the front lawn and I get to meet grandma, I get to meet his mom, so we're in positions where as mentors they feel comfortable enough to welcome them into their spaces and that's one of the most beautiful things.” BUILD’s consistent presence in the young person’s lives and ongoing communication with the parents strengthened connections and built trust. “When you're there for the little things, when the bigger things come up, they're willing to trust you.” Jeremy laughed about how some youth would get grounded, and have their phone taken away. BUILD mentors would call the parent, “hey, we're about to do a group check-in, is it cool if they can use your phone just so we can say what's up to him and make sure he's good?”
Doing Life Together
Mr. Mercado and Ms. Scott-Boria shared that nearly all of the young men in the program have graduated from high school. "It was amazing to see a large group of our young men be happy about attending school, and relying on the BUILD community for support and motivation to graduate, find jobs, and in many cases continue to higher education.”
Mr. Mercado, reflecting on the last couple years: "one of the things we say a lot is that we're just doing life together. If we're consistent, and the youth are consistent, things are going to work out. We just knew this is a time where a lot of things aren't going to make sense , and we knew we needed to show up for our youth - even on the days we didn’t think we could show up for ourselves. That's the thing that I'm most proud of, just knowing that we created this space and brotherhood. It's beautiful to see."