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New Life Centers of Chicagoland

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Chicago Seed Community: Chicago, IL

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New Life Centers Benny Estrada

Benny, Director of Street Outreach, started his career with Ceasefire, a Chicago violence intervention project formed in 1999, and he has been doing street outreach and violence prevention for more than two decades. When there’s a shooting in the neighborhood, Benny usually knows who was shot within an hour.

When Chicago police shot and killed Adam Toledo, a 13 year old boy who had recently moved to the Little Village neighborhood and attended the same class as the son of New Life’s Executive Director, it was Benny who first met with the boy’s mother.  New Life helped plan the funeral, accompanied the family when they first watched the bodycam videos, and continues to support the family.

When New Life tells you that “our secret sauce is relationships,” they’re talking about Benny and the other street outreach workers with deep ties in the neighborhood and across the city. 

But even from going from a staff of seven, six years ago to a staff of eighty today, training twelve new outreach workers in the past three years, and adding on two new neighborhoods as part of the support from MBK, New Life will tell you more is still needed. The organization’s  after school, summer activity, and violence prevention programs reach thousands of youth from first grade through high school; however there are 40,000 young people within two miles of the organization’s office.  

Rapid expansion is never easy, it’s even harder during a global public health emergency. “No one gives you a ‘how to lead in a pandemic’ guidebook” reflected New Life’s Executive Director Matt DeMateo. “Let alone a guidebook for how to lead through a pandemic, national uprising in response to police murder, or the local police shooting of Adam.” Even without such a guide, the organization’s strong relationships allowed it to be responsive to community needs as they dealt with multiple crises.

Before the pandemic, New Life’s food pantry served 100 families per week.  As of June of 2021 it was serving 6,000 families on a weekly basis, two million individuals in the past eighteen months. When the corner store next to New Life’s offices closed, the owners lent the organization the space temporarily.  As the program grew, they succeeded in getting funders to commit to the operation, bought the building cash, and are now employing sixteen youth to run the distribution program.

Along with other MBK organizations, street outreach turned from violence prevention and response to include distribution of PPE equipment, covid education, and virtual programming.  Amidst the sprawling programmatic work and the deep systems change required, advocates also found simple solutions with outsized impact including Lyft ride codes to get people home safely at night, a group chat for eight different outreach groups to coordinate with each other, mutual referrals between their agencies for the services they’re best suited to provide.

To seed a vision of a different city, 32 youth — half from mostly Latino Little Village and half from mostly African-American North Lawndale, two neighborhoods physically separated by little more than a six lane road and some railroad tracks but politically and racially deeply divided — gathered with New Life to create a new messaging campaign, ‘One Lawndale.’ They produced t-shirts, stickers, a mural that features recognized leaders from both neighborhoods on the wall across the street from New Life’s office, and joint church service performed by eight churches bringing their congregants together.

New Life Centers Students in rec room
New Life Centers Student outside
New Life Centers active Student

We’re Stronger Together

In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, the City responded to protestors by lifting the bridges that cross the Chicago river and shut off the downtown area known as “The Loop”. As a result, it sent boiling over tensions into Chicago’s neighborhoods. As confrontations and violence escalated, New Life and other street outreach organizations went into crisis mode.  Little Village street organizations took formation to defend neighborhood stores from property damage but instead quickly escalated racial tensions in the highly segregated city. To prevent further violence, repair harm, and take accountability, New Life worked with others across the city to put on a 400 person peace rally in the neighborhood where they put on programming, barbecued, and distributed “stronger together” t-shirts with the outline of the whole city behind the slogan.  

Like in many other MBK cities, New Life pairs their direct programming with systems change work in order to improve the communities wellbeing.  They are one of four anchor organizations of Justice Rising,  an initiative which aims to transform the juvenile justice system in Chicago.  They worked to close down St. Charles and Warrenville juvenile justice centers, and work to create alternatives to youth detention, address disproportionate minority contact, and decrease criminalization of students’ in schools and increase restorative justice practices.

Through it all, MBK acted as a connecting force and support for staff. The MBK Covid Relief Fund led to a Harlem Children’s Zone grant specifically for staff care, deeply needed to support each other through the intensity of the work and the personal impact of staff losing parents to covid or burying youth participants who fell victim to violence. The experiences that MBK brought to New Life and its youth participants were invaluable.  Youth attending NBA All-Star Games, meeting celebrities like Steph Curry, President Obama, or John Legend, are transformed by the access and experience.  “To be part of MBK was to have somebody in your corner who wants to see your agency succeed,”reflected Executive Director of New Life Matt DeMateo. The networking made it feel “like having a bigger team, like there’s colleagues in the fight with you.”

Returning to the reality of the street-level work New Life operates, Estrada concludes, “We have a long way to go toward peace but we’re taking the right steps and building the right relationships… What policymakers can do is listen more deeply to the young people and the frontline organizations.”   DeMateo adds, “The answers to the neighborhood’s challenges should come from the neighborhood.” 

New Life Centers kids playing video game.
New Life Centers: Little Village Violence Prevention Collaborative
New Life Centers mentor supporting youth.
New Life Centers: Little Village Violence Prevention Collaborative

New Life Centers of Chicagoland, NFP, Chicago, IL

New Life Centers’ Urban Life Skills program targets youth ages 12-to-24 in two demographics: gang-involved or justice-involved youth on probation and youth referred through local schools, community agencies, and the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice and Cook County Jail, providing them with mentoring, street outreach, violence mediation, intervention services, and street-based counseling. In the midst of the pandemic, New Life Centers has expanded its program offerings to include providing food to more than 400 families a week.