Walking into the quaint headquarters of BUILD Chicago, located at 5100 W. Harrison St. in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, guests are greeted by an overload of artwork on one side of the entrance. Collages, paintings and cutouts with bursting colors and images line one side of the entrance. On the other side, a black and white mural displays different workers of BUILD with a phrase that encompasses the entire organization, “Not all superheros wear capes.”
At the front desk, a warm smile awaits from the receptionist wearing a colorful headband. For the employees that make up BUILD Chicago, heading to a meeting takes an eternity as passing by any person leads to a hello, a high five, a hug and a quick conversation. BUILD Chicago advertises a sense of community within its walls and by the way everyone treats each other, and it shows.
Currently celebrating their 50th year of existence, BUILD Chicago’s goal as an organization is to help at-risk youths avoid the life of gangs and violence. Originally beginning in Humboldt Park, but now spreading across many different neighborhoods in Chicago, BUILD Chicago strides to achieve their goals through many different techniques, so they can reach many different types of kids.
According to the BUILD Chicago website, “BUILD has helped thousands of young people transform their lives, and today reaches over 3500 youth a year with caring adult mentors and a rich variety of experiences in the arts, athletics, college and career preparation, entrepreneurship, leadership development and technology.”
One of the people within BUILD Chicago that is making a change is Mark Thornton, manager of strong bodies, a part of the enrichment department within BUILD Chicago. “I do sports, fitness and nutrition with the kids,” Thornton said. The enrichment department also includes activities such as music, art, learning and leadership.
Thornton, who has been working with BUILD Chicago since 2014 but only started full time last year, works mainly with elementary and high school kids, trying to keep them busy and fit at the same time. “We are really trying to get the nutrition piece right now which is a challenge,” said Thornton continuing. “It’ll take a while to get the chips and sugary drinks away from them.”
Thornton first encountered BUILD Chicago when he worked as a public school teacher and dean at Kelvyn Park High School on the northwest side in the Hermosa neighborhood. “As a dean, they were a real nice support group for me because there is never a dull moment over there,” Thornton said.
One of the sports programs that BUILD Chicago offers to its kids is a basketball league, Hoops in the Hood. According to the BUILD Chicago website, Hoops in the Hood is a sports-based community safety initiative that helps youths build relationships with their peers and adults.
While speaking about Hoops in the Hood to the Chicago Tribune in August of last year, Adam Alonso, executive director of BUILD Chicago, said, “We’re not looking for votes, we’re not looking for people to sign up for anything. We’re legitimately here to provide a moment in time for this block, to enjoy bringing the kids out so they don’t have to watch their backs.”
Another way that BUILD Chicago is helping youths stay away from gangs and violence is by working with them and their families directly. Ashley Miller, the manager of community violence and support services, spends his week working with families and youths that are impacted by violence.
Miller said that BUILD Chicago helps these families by providing local services by “filling potholes that come up in their lives.
“Families be faced with poverty, faced with homelessness, faced with being foodless or dealing with mental wellness issues,” Miller said.
BUILD Chicago also goes out onto the streets in high-risk neighborhoods to help youths find a way out of a life of violence.
Terrence Smith, the intervention lead for the Austin neighborhood, explained that BUILD Chicago has three types of intervention programs. “We have intervention inside of schools where we partner with the schools,” said Smith. “We also have a referral process that may come from a juvenile detention center or may come from a school we’re not affiliated with.” The last type of intervention is street intervention where BUILD Chicago goes out onto the streets to meet youths and adults.
Smith said that the process of coming into BUILD Chicago is different for each at-risk youth. “If they are ready to be put into a group setting, then we won’t prolong them,” Smith said. “Most times a youth is high-risk and not ready for a group setting, we tend to do a one-on-one process.” Smith said that the hope for youth coming through BUILD Chicago is to help them build their future through education and hopefully college.
*This article was originally published for The Torch.