By: Mary Helt Gavin
Published: October 7, 2015
A teenager standing on a front porch can look up at the stars and dream but still feel grounded at home, said Seth Green, executive director of Youth & Opportunity United (Y.O.U.). The front of Y.O.U.’s new building at 1911-17 Church St. will reflect that concept.
Y.O.U. has outgrown its present space, a rabbit warren of offices and other rooms on the second floor of 1027 Sherman Ave. “We’ve grown from serving 450 children to serving 1,500 children in 11 schools,” Mr. Green said.
Eight of those schools are in the Evanston school districts: Dawes, Oakton, Walker and Washington elementary schools, Chute and Nichols middle schools and King Arts lab school, and Evanston Township High School. About 60% of the students are black, 25-30% are Latino, and 10-15% are white or Asian. Of those 85% are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch.
Y.O.U. will continue to offer on-site programs at each of those schools, Mr. Green said. The new 12,000-square-foot building will be used for special sessions – in the new demonstration kitchen, for example, or the maker lab. The ground floor will be devoted to activities for youth; offices will occupy the second floor. A small garden in the front of the building, developed and tended with help from the Edible Acre at Evanston Township High School, will supply herbs and vegetables for the kitchen.
On Oct. 3 at the Gibbs-Morrison Cultural Center, Mr. Green, together with Y.O.U. staff and board members, rolled out the reasons and the scope of the Campaign for Youth Opportunity – narrowing the “opportunity gap” for middle-school and high school students.
“For many youth there is a lack of access to social-emotional learning, and that kind of learning is one of the things we at Y.O.U. provide,” Mr. Green told the RoundTable. “We believe that the opportunity gap is the precursor to the achievement gap.” In this country and this community, he told the audience of more than 100 people on Oct. 3, “The opportunity gap in our community and our country has never been greater. The chance to develop more fully is more unequal than ever.”
Mr. Green set out the “three big goals for this campaign: The first is about our programming. We serve 1,500 you and they are, to the child, absolutely spectacular. The second is the building at 1911-17 Church St. The third is building a sustainable organization.
“Everyone can participate by learning, volunteering or investing. Two opportunities to learn about Y.O.U. are [the King Day celebration] Diverse Evanston Walks United and the presentation by Robert Putnam [author of “Our Kids”] in April. For volunteering – there’s a garden coming, and the site could use some cleanup.” Finally, he said, the campaign is an opportunity for everyone in the community to invest at any level.
Chip Brady, co-chair of the campaign said, “This is a great day – a day to celebrate and a day to acknowledge we have a lot of work to do. Don Baker is the visionary cofounder of this organization, and everything we do is infused with his vision.”
Mr. Baker said of the direction of Y.O.U., “I love what’s going on. I spent 40 years on [YOU], and this makes it richer. I did some things in the beginning that Seth probably could not have done and he has done some things I could not have. The meshing of talents is wonderful.”
Alderman Delores Holmes said, "I am happy to welcome YOU to the Fifth Ward. It will make a really big difference for the Church/Dodge area. Who would not support this learning and innovative opportunity?”
Clarence Weaver, co-owner of C&W Coffee Shop on the northwest corner of Church Street and Dodge Avenue spoke about the importance of mentoring youth. He and his wife, Wendy, “started C&W a year ago. Often through church activities – sometimes in the parking lot, we would talk to high school youth. When we opened up the coffee shop, what happened was that our perception was not the reality. We had young men come into the store whose pants were not positioned properly. We told them to adjust the pants. And we started asking them how they were doing in school. The same individual who we asked to pull up their pats we found were honor students. … The individuals we need to reach out to are those who have a 2.5 – and try to help them go up to a 2.7. It’s not about where you start; it’s about where you end. … We have all had mentors. The best way to we can reach out … is to realize that somebody helped us.”
Endorsing the organization and its vision, Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said, “Y.O.U. gets it. We have great kids in this community. Some need more help. This is where you should spend your time and your money.”