Thursday, July 23, 2009

Breakthrough Urban Ministries

Today Nicole and I had the pleasure of visiting an incredible organization on the west side of Chicago: Breakthrough Urban Ministries in East Garfield Park. Our mission was to visit their Summer Studies program for grades K-8, but in doing so we were exposed to so much more. In addition to pre-school, after-school and college prep services for youth, Breakthrough provides support on emergency and long-term bases for women in crisis and homeless, unemployed men. They provide overnight shelter for 60 men and women and daytime services addressing employment, housing, and healthcare for countless others. They do it all!

Our guide for the morning was Chief Operating Officer Bill Curry. In 2000, Bill and his wife, Marcie, established the Youth and Family Services Program that we visited today. The program offers after-school tutoring, arts classes, bible study, sports leagues, and a technology center. 85 grade school children attend the after-school program while 67 are currently enrolled in Summer Studies. During the year, 65 volunteer tutors come to Breakthrough each week and usually work with 2-3 kids each. More than half of those volunteers come from colleges like North Park University, University of Illinois at Chicago, or Moody Bible Institute.

Additionally, they found a creative way to maintain connections with universities and colleges. For the whole year, each grade in the program is a different college (i.e. 1st grade is DePaul, 2nd grade is University of Chicago, and so on) and eight local high school students (who are employed year-round at Breakthrough) act as presidents of those groups/"colleges." What a way to expose youth to higher education and, at the same time, offer unique, internal leadership opportunities. Great idea!

Another interesting element at Breakthrough is their network model for youth development, which encourages several individuals to invest in each boy or girl. This model is somewhat of a reaction to turnover problems found with one-on-one tutoring. Because so many volunteer tutors are young, their lives are unpredictable. For example, they may get a new job and move -- a major event that draws them away from the responsibility of tutoring.

In order for one-on-one matches to be worthwhile, many studies say they must last for at least 12 months. Otherwise it may have a null or negative effect as the tutor's disappearance is seen as abandonment. The group mentality of the network model serves to counteract that. Breakthrough tries to surround each boy and girl with at least seven caring adults. If circumstances remove a volunteer from the program, there is a network to fill in for him or her. This relieves the perceived pressure of a one-on-one relationship and also helps ease guilt as some tutors feel so bad for leaving one child that they become permanently reluctant to reach out to another, and we don't want that!

There is no doubt that Breakthrough does a great job. They will soon break ground on a new $12 Million medical and recreational center, future home of youth and family services. They will be able to increase their pre-school enrollment from 15 to 60, after-school from 80 to 200, and sports from 325 to 1050. The facility will also house a fitness center and a health center run by Lawndale Christian Health Center.

Bill is the mastermind behind a lot of these accomplishments and I would like to thank him for so graciously welcoming us this morning. He is the real deal. He and his wife live and work in East Garfield Park. They work from the inside out, not the outside in, and I commend them for that. I look forward to keeping in touch as they continue to flourish at Breakthrough.

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