Chicago, IL — At age 27, LaShawn Jenkins knows all too well the unique value she brings to her work and the lives of the young people she serves at Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc. in Chicago.
When she was 15, Jenkins herself was a YAP participant; and like the youth she now works with at the agency, she faced complex challenges.
“I was very stubborn — didn’t want to do anything; afraid to let them [the YAP team] come in and help me.”
Founded in 1975, YAP is a national nonprofit in 35 states and Washington, DC that partners with youth justice, child welfare, behavioral health, education, and other systems to deliver community-based services as an alternative to incarceration and residential treatment and placements. YAP’s evidence-based wraparound services model is also part of the nonprofit’s growing community violence intervention and prevention work in communities across the nation. Using zip code-based staff recruitment, YAP hires culturally responsive Advocates, Behavioral Health staff, and Credible Messengers to work with young people and their families at home, school, and other community-based sites. YAP teams are trained to empower program participants with skills to put their lives on a positive track by connecting them with individualized tools — including basic needs resources — to help them see and nurture their strengths and give back to their communities.
“I was born into foster care,” Jenkins said. “I was adopted by a very kind couple when I was eight. They had two kids and they also had adopted my biological brother, but after being bounced from home-to-home, I had trouble trusting people and was having a lot of emotional issues.”
In addition to moving a lot as a child in the foster care system, by the time she was adopted, Jenkins had lived briefly with her father before she was a toddler and had vivid memories of visiting him after that when he was in prison.
Compounding her pain and confusion, she had never lived with her biological mother and was aware that she had other siblings throughout the city whom she didn’t know.
By her early teens, Jenkins had experienced multiple arrests and placements in numerous detention and residential care facilities. She said that while her adopted parents never turned away from her, a judge returned her to the child welfare system. That was when she became a participant in YAP where she began to work with a team of Advocates who believed in her from the start and never gave up on her.
“Marlon, Antoine, E’Ron, Lanita, Jasmine, Shaquita, Nikki – they saw something I didn’t see in myself,” she said.
By then, Jenkins was a freshman at a high school that specializes in working with students with serious behavioral and other health needs.
“My Advocates helped me get back into regular school; and when I would mess up, they encouraged me, telling me, ‘You’re better than this.”
Jenkins said her YAP Advocates helped her strengthen her bond with her adopted foster parents (the Jenkins’) and empowered her with tools that helped her begin to rebuild a relationship with her biological father and start fresh with her mother and siblings with whom she had recently connected.
“Lanita helped me with the situation with my mom — helped me understand her story. She met my mom and would invite her and some of my other siblings out with us to help build that bond,” Jenkins said. “If I never listed to Lanita, I would never know what my mom went through herself.”
She credits her whole team of YAP Advocates for helping her stay on track and graduate high school.
In 2023, Jenkins was back at YAP as a young adult, but not as a program participant. This time, she was applying for a job.
“I wanted to come back and give back to kids the way my Advocates gave back to me,” she said.
So far, as a YAP Advocate, Jenkins has worked with nine program participants. She said they are all making progress, “baby steps,” as she described it.
“Building trust is the first step. I give them hope that I’m not going to just be in and out of their lives. They need to know someone will be there steady,” she said.
Jenkins’ superpower as a YAP Advocate is the experience that she shares with those she serves — kids who are systems involved with complex childhoods that are difficult to navigate.
“I tell them, If I can do it, so can you.”