Chicago – In high school, Melanie was failing nine credits and felt like graduation was impossible.
Approximately two years ago she was in a domestic battery situation that resulted in her being removed from her home. That, coupled with some other traumatic instances in her life, led Melanie to lose all motivation to do well in school.
“I was in a very tough spot in my life,” Melanie said. “I wasn’t in the right place or the right mindset.”
That is until she connected with the Choose to Change (C2C) program, a partnership to reduce violence in Chicago, between Youth Advocate Programs, (YAP), Inc., and Children’s Home and Aid. The program assists youth who have been impacted by violence and trauma, and links them to supportive, safe services. The program is evaluated by the University of Chicago Crime Lab.
YAP’s services are based on the nonprofit’s youth justice model, which provides community-based and individual advocate and family services. Additionally, Children’s Home & Aid also provides weekly Trauma Informed – Cognitive Behavioral Group sessions to help participants work through past traumatic experiences.
Melanie is the first person in her family to graduate from high school, a major milestone in her life that she credits to YAP Advocate Cassandra Bell whom she says helped her to complete her secondary education.
“I felt like there was no way I was going to graduate,” Melanie said. “She motivated me and pushed me to finish high school. That little accomplishment made a big difference in my life.”
Bell, who nicknamed Melanie “Pixie,” because of her small size, said Melanie only had 45 days to turn her grades around in order to receive her diploma.
“I was like we’re going to set a plan and we’re going to work toward our goal,” Bell said of helping put Melanie on the path toward graduation. “My goal was to show her that if you could put your mind to something, you can do it.”
Bell picked up Melanie and took her to school twice a week and found her a tutor. When Melanie, 19, finally received the letter that said she was graduating, Bell said the two of them were screaming with excitement and describes the moment as being like “the Fourth of July.”
Bell was able to help Melanie get clothes for commencement and get her hair done. Melanie graduated on June 17 from Ombudsman Chicago South.
“The building cheered so hard for her when she walked across the stage to get her diploma,” Bell said. “Now she’s a big person in a little body.”
Melanie says Bell has taught her so much and looks to her as a mother figure in her life.
“She always helps me out when I need her the most,” Melanie added. “At my graduation it felt good knowing she was there to support me. She helps guide me.”
Through C2C, Melanie said she’s also found a small family between other young people in the program with whom she can depend on and it’s a safe space where she never feels judged.
“Having your small group of friends is like having a small family,” Melanie said. “Maybe you guys may not have the same interests…but there’s still a connection.”
A study by the University of Chicago found that C2C helps improves school engagement and misconduct incidents were lowered. The program works with young people ages 13 to 18 and has served over 600 youth since it began in 2015.
Melanie said she’s glad she was a part of the program and is confident her life is moving in the right direction. She’s working a part-time job and plans to enroll in Richard J. Daley College in the fall.
“When you take the risk, you never know what the outcome is going to be,” Melanie said. “I knew that it was going to benefit me in such a good way, and I got something out of it.”
As for Bell, she is excited about Melanie’s future.
“I am just so proud of her,” Bell added. “I always tell my young people they are gifts. I can’t wait to have this conversation about her in five years.”