For most children and teens, the end of the school year means long lazy days soaking in the sun, hot food and cool treats.  But for many others, especially young people on Chicago’s south and west sides, it’s the start of a dangerous three months. Add layers of fear and isolation from the COVID pandemic,  and the threat of violence to and by young people becomes even more of a reality. Chicago has recorded 1,900 shooting victims this year — 1,400 since the March  stay at home order and nine fatalities of children under the age of 18.

But Children’s Home & Aid and partner agency Youth Advocate Programs, YAP, Inc. continue to fight this grim trend with the Choose 2 Change program – an intensive 6-month wraparound program that combines mentorship, therapy and activities that allow a ‘learn by doing’ approach for youth between the ages of 13 to 18. Rigorously evaluated by the University of Chicago Crime Lab, the program has been recognized as effective: 48 percent fewer violent crime arrests than peers; and when in school, C2C participants had 32 percent fewer misconduct reports.

Even during the pandemic, C2C staff are connecting with youth through technology.  C2C coaches and mentors are building relationships with the youth, developing their trauma-related coping skills so youth can de-escalate risky situations, and coaching them through virtual employment opportunities.

“While it’s been more challenging to do this program remotely, we know we are making an impact with kids when they ask us when they will see their mentors again,” said Jiselle Roman, clinical supervisor of Choose to Change and the Chicago Student Success Initiative. “They are learning to use tools to regulate their emotions and, since many have endured different types of trauma, they also learn coping skills for when things feel out of control.”

Jiselle also says that, like many other programs affected by COVID-19 regulations, it’s difficult to reach kids who don’t have smartphones or tablets – there just simply aren’t enough. But those who have been able to connect continue to be excited and most continuing to complete their online therapy.

Since 2015 the program has served over 600 youth and as part of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s commitment to ending youth violence, the City launched another cohort of the program this summer, currently engaging 270 youth. It will now also include a component connecting youth to seniors called ‘You are Not Alone’ which connects a youth to a Chicago Housing Authority senior for weekly check-ins. Click here to give your support to increase support for youth and reduce violence.