Two months before her 21st birthday, Tuesday Nelson is turning an important corner in her life. Last month, she started her first job at Coopers Hawk Winery and Restaurant in Chicago. While the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has sidelined her for the moment, she did get to feel the rush of getting her first paycheck; and she looks forward to rejoining the Coopers Hawk team when everyone’s back to work.
Nelson was one of the first participants in Choose to Change (C2C), a program aimed at curbing gun violence in some of Chicago’s most highly impacted neighborhoods. Developed by Youth Advocate Programs (YAP) and Children’s Home & Aid, C2C has partnered with the University of Chicago Crime Lab and Education Lab to study the impact of this program for young people. Early results suggest C2C reduces the likelihood that program participants will have any contact with the youth justice system over the longer term, reducing the probability of any arrests by 33 percent two and a half years after the program ends.
The six-month C2C program provides intensive mentoring and “wraparound support” from YAP with behavioral health services from Children’s Home & Aid, including 12 to 16 trauma-informed therapy group sessions called SPARCS (Structured Psychotherapy for Adolescents Responding to Chronic Stress). C2C participants, ages 13-18, may be actively or at risk of becoming gang involved; on youth probation; previously found guilty of weapons offenses; disengaged in school through chronic truancy, serious misconduct and/or frequent suspensions; and/or have been victims of traumatic violence.
When Nelson first got involved in C2C, she was dealing with a lot of stress. Nelson was a student at Chicago Excel Academy of Southwest, where she landed after a month of being home when she was expelled from Curie High School. Months earlier, she had come out to her family, sharing with them that she’s gay. Nelson had also recently experienced a heartbreaking loss.
“I had just lost my homie; he died in a car accident,” she said. “I was happy to be doing something outside of school.”
For Nelson, choosing to change meant learning to see and appreciate her strengths and discovering positive outlets to make them work for her. It also meant understanding how childhood trauma informed the choices that got her into trouble during her youth.
“My parents separated when I was three and as a young mom who grew up in foster care, it wasn’t easy for my mother to raise five kids,” she said. “A lot of times we didn’t have lights. I would go to a neighbor’s house to get buckets of water. I never asked for much and did what I could to help.”
By the time she was in the sixth grade, Nelson had been in three grammar schools, fighting with each move to ward off would-be bullies and maintain her reputation as someone not to be messed with.
“I always felt like the teachers didn’t want me there. And the kids were always teasing me, mostly about my name, but other stuff, too,” she said.
Most of Nelson’s friends were boys, her homies, who like her, saw their share of trouble. Her first run in with police was in the sixth grade when she and her crew got arrested for “jumping another kid.”
“I wasn’t even scared. They fingerprinted me and everything. I waited four hours before my mom came to get me,” she recalled.
As a high school student at Curie, Nelson sold chips, candy and other corner store snacks to make money to take care of herself and her family. “I guess I was always trying to help my mother – to protect her; I was trying to do everything on my own,” she said.
One day, when someone told Nelson that the principal was going to confront her, she gave her stash to a classmate to hold onto. She said days later when the boy refused to return the snacks or pay her for them, she and her homies went after him.
“Curie suspended me for five days, then five more days before finally expelling me,” she said. “I also got charged with assault and robbery.”
Nelson said through C2C, she attended sports and cultural events outside of her neighborhood, which opened her eyes to new opportunities. At the same time, her mentors connected her to accessible tools and resources in her community to nurture her evolving interests.
“My talents are producing and writing music,” she said. “My gifts are how I process things; my sweetness with helping my family and friends. They’re things I always had, especially with pretty much raising myself.”
Nelson said the C2C program’s SPARCS sessions helped her connect the dots between her childhood trauma and the unsafe choices she made while growing up.
“I was always the strong one, always tried to help my mama. She didn’t have a mother, so she didn’t always know that I needed certain things from her, but I realized it still hurt my feelings.”
Nelson graduated from high school in 2018 and maintained contact with her C2C mentors as she explored several job training and career options, including making music, which she has continued to do. As a former program participant, she has met with U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and others who are interested in learning about C2C.
Today, for the first time, Nelson can see the prospect of real change and independence – sharing rent with roommates, maybe even buying a car. But her first priority was purchasing something she has been wanting for a long time.
“I had been sleeping on two couches pulled together. The first thing I did when I got paid was bought my own bed.”
For more information on Choose to Change, please click here.