Chicago, IL — Carla Felton sees herself in many of the young people she works with. She’s Assistant Director at Chicago Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc., where she’s on the Choose to Change (C2C) team. A national nonprofit in 31 states and the District of Columbia, YAP provides community-based alternatives to youth incarceration, out-of-home congregate care, and neighborhood violence. C2C is a partnership with YAP and Children’s Home & Aid evaluated by the University of Chicago Crime Lab and Education Lab, which found it reduces the impact of trauma on youth living in neighborhoods impacted by high levels of violence.
“Unfortunately, untreated trauma led to a lot of suffering and struggling [for my family], which meant a painful childhood for me that included chronic school absences and changes, depression, frequent moving and periods of homelessness,” Felton said. “At our lowest, I remember sleeping on a mattress in a church basement.”
Choose to Change serves students who may have justice system involvement, and/or have been exposed to violence, or like Felton when she was a CPS student, experienced high levels of trauma with poor school attendance.
“There were times when I didn’t go to school at all,” Felton said.
In October, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) announced that increased funding for the program will enable YAP and Children’s Home & Aid to expand services and train four smaller nonprofits to provide C2C-informed programming.
“There is nothing more important than the safety of our children, and the pandemic has had an adverse impact on our young people, especially in the area of their safety, which is why we are taking further steps to ensure our children are safe and inside of the classroom where they belong,” said Mayor Lori Lightfoot. “This expansion will not only change the lives of our participating youth, but it may also save lives.”
For its part in C2C, YAP applies its national model of providing neighborhood-based Advocates who deliver intensive wraparound services that include mentorship, connecting participants with jobs and resources, and helping families meet basic needs. Children’s Home and Aid provides weekly group therapy sessions, which program participants attend with their YAP Advocates. University of Chicago Crime Lab and Education Lab data have found C2C reduces violence and improves school attendance among participants.
“The impressive results of the Choose to Change program demonstrate that it will be an important strategy to safeguard our students from the harmful effects of trauma,” said CPS CEO Pedro Martinez. “While we are overjoyed to have returned to in-person learning, we know that our students are coping with issues beyond the classroom and it is imperative that we look to programs like Choose to Change to help ensure that we are supporting all of our students, especially in the area of promoting their emotional well-being.”
Felton is excited about the possibility of more young people receiving trauma-informed services, saying that C2C helps struggling youth and their parents connect with tools to help them get their lives on a positive track. She said resources are very individualized and might include tutoring, job resources, help with groceries or utilities, or connections to extended family members, which she said was a lifesaver for her as a child.
“My aunt once gave me four quarters and told me to use them if I ever had an emergency,” she said. “In pain and feeling helpless one day when I was 12, my mother took my brothers and me to the police station and said she could no longer care for us. I went to a pay phone and called my aunt who ran to the station to step in.”
Felton completed high school at Senn Academy where she met another student, who had been placed in foster care with a family not related to her. While she missed the opportunity to live with her mother, stories from her classmate made her feel fortunate that she was at least with family and still in her mom’s life.
Felton said she was ultimately adopted by her aunt and that with support from a community resource, the Loyola University Upward Bound Program, she began to combat the impact of the traumatic experiences of her childhood.
“I had the experience of a great mentor and campus life, which helped prepare me for college,” she said. “It took some time for me to finally complete college, but I eventually graduated with my master’s degree in nonprofit administration.”
Prior to joining the staff at YAP as an Advocate, Felton worked first as a volunteer at Deborah’s Place, later managing the organizations’ housing programs for homeless women. She said that experience helped her understand the value of service providers having shared experiences with program participants.
“I had the same experience as the clients, so naturally, I served them with dignity and respect,” she said.
Over the years, Felton stayed in touch with her high school friend, who later went to work for YAP and introduced her to the organization.
“During my first training, I said ‘Yup; they get it. YAP understands the power of strengthening and supporting families. We need this as a community. I started off as an Advocate, eventually moving to a Lead Advocate, then being promoted as an Assistant Director,” she said. “I always tell my team of Advocates, I work for you. I am here to serve you. I want to make sure you have what you need to be Advocates to our amazing youth. They deserve it. I don’t play; if you want to be on my team…you better be serious. Our young people need Advocates.”
The four community-based programs that will receive training to provide C2C-informed programming include Bright Star Community Outreach in Bronzeville, New Life Centers of Chicagoland in Little Village, Lifeline to Hope in West Garfield Park, and BUILD Chicago in Humboldt Park. In addition, later this year, CPS will issue a call for proposals for additional community-based organizations in communities with high rates of violence to implement the program.
To learn more about C2C and how you can support the program, please visit www.ChoosetoChangeChicago.org. To join YAP, either to work on the Chicago C2C team or the organization’s youth justice or child welfare community-based-alternatives to placement programs across the U.S., please visit www.YAPInc.org. Follow YAP on Twitter @YAPInc.