Against Incredible Odds, these Chicago Youth Choose to Change  

    Chicago Choose to Change (C2C) Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc. Advocate Cassandra Bell (front) poses with Carriana, one of many youth choosing to put their lives on a positive path in the face of incredible odds

    Theirs are among too many stories lost in news headlines about gun violence in their neighborhoods. They are young people who are thriving because of their individual strengths, fostered by Chicago’s Choose to Change program, also known as C2C.

    A partnership with Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc., and Children’s Home & Aid, C2C provides young people with intensive trauma-informed wraparound and behavioral health services to help them develop healthy decision-making tools while connecting them and their families with resources to nurture their gifts and talents. The program focuses on young people impacted by neighborhood violence who face complex challenges, including exposure to trauma, justice system involvement, and school disengagement.

    JaShon graduated top of his class

    “JaShon graduated top of his class!

    Ariel graduated from Excel Englewood at the top of her class

    Ariel is graduating from Excel/Englewood at the top of her class, and she will start classes at Chicago State University this summer,” said YAP Midwest Regional Director of Quality Improvement Dina Harris.

    Like a proud parent, Harris joined YAP Advocates Cassandra Bell and Jean Johnson to boast as they shared program participants’ high school graduation and prom photos.

    Bell recalled the persistence of Carriana, how her life was full of tragedy as she endured continuous bullying, transferring four times before landing at Ombudsman South. “While Carriana was trying to gain control of her life, her aunt, who was also her best friend, was murdered,” Bell said.

    Chicago YAP team celebrated with Carriana, decorating a dessert table in her favorite colors

    “Carriana graduated with her class, and we hosted a prom send-off for her that included a dessert table in dedication to her aunt with decorations in all her favorite colors.”

    C2C launched in 2015 in the greater Englewood communities of Chicago and has since expanded in the South and Westside neighborhoods, engaging more than 800 youth ages 13-18. The C2C team is touched by each student’s unique struggles and ability to achieve their goals.

    Alexis was valedictorian at Ombudsman West

    Johnson shared a graduation photo of a participant named, Alexis, saying she “has come a long way.”  “She was valedictorian at Ombudsman West and plans to attend the University of Illinois Chicago campus for psychology. She has enjoyed C2C and she’s in YAP’s summer program. She’s definitely ready to pursue her future.”

    Among the photos Bell shared were pictures of Melanie, who suffered personal losses as a young child including being separated from her mother. Melanie was nine credits away from graduating when she became a C2C participant.

    “From the moment we met, we worked on our plan to achieve the impossible,” Bell said. A mantra she and Melanie shared was, “It’s possible because I’m possible.”

    YAP’s services are based on the nonprofit’s youth justice model, which provides community-based and individualized advocate and family services. Children’s Home & Aid provides weekly trauma informed – cognitive behavioral group sessions.

    Youth Advocate Programs Advocate Cassandra Bell with program participant, Melanie

    “I would pick her [Melanie] up, go to school with her and have homework time with her,” Bell said, adding that she also made sure Melanie spent time with “her YAP brothers and sisters [other program participants].” Central to Melanie’s success were her teachers and members of the staff at Ombudsman South High School.

    Through a randomized controlled trial, research at the University of Chicago Crime Lab and Education Lab have found that C2C reduces violent crime arrests by 50 percent while increasing school attendance by about a week.

    “The staff was amazing and as a team, we worked together to turn the impossible into being very possible,” Bell said. “Hard work pays off! [Melanie] graduated Class of 2021.”

    For more information on C2C, please visit