Every Wednesday, 10 teen girls gather in West Town to piece together jewelry. They come from some of the toughest areas of the city where the dropout rates at their high schools top 50 percent and the level of crime soars. But within their group, Brand BUILD, none of that matters.
The girls consider themselves family, a place of hope where university flags dot the walls and a poster proclaims "Yes, you can go to college." They sell their professional-quality jewelry at stores, private parties and law firms, setting aside a portion of the money for college and personal spending.
"This is an outlet for us," says Sandra Ortiz, a 17-year-old junior at Roberto Clemente High School in Humboldt Park who has been a part of the program for two years.
Brand BUILD is one of the dozens of programs offered by Broader Urban Involvement and Leadership Development (BUILD), an organization that has worked since 1969 to help kids and adults, ages 6 through 27, in underprivileged areas of inner city Chicago through free after-school activities, workshops, tutoring and mentoring. The results show BUILD is making strides: 96 percent of the students involved in the BUILDing Futures program graduated from high school and 93 percent were admitted to a post-secondary institute.
Some of the youth were or currently are in gangs, others are involved with drugs and many live in one-parent homes. "No one has ever really given them a chance," says Roslind Blasingame-Buford, the associate executive director of BUILD. "A lot of times young people don’t know their true potential."
BUILD helps them to see that potential. "We empower them to start talking about and understanding what their dreams and goals are so that they’re able to realize and achieve them," she says.
BUILD especially emphasizes the importance of education. It recently implemented a high school and college survival workshop series to help students graduate.
Alexis Hardy, a career development specialist at BUILD and a supervisor over Brand BUILD, wishes she took advantage of youth programs when she was growing up in the Garfield and Austin communities. At school she was teased because of her weight and at home she lived with a verbally and physically abusive stepfather. Bubbling with anger, Hardy was suspended so many times for fighting that she almost didn’t graduate from high school. Now no one would suspect the soft-spoken, well-dressed woman was that girl.
Her hope is to stop other kids before they make the same bad choices.
For Brianna Grant, who spends Monday through Thursday in BUILD after-school programs, the organization provides a safe haven from her Cabrini Green neighborhood. "When you leave here and go home, there’s a lot of fighting and stuff not necessary," says Brianna, a 15-year-old freshman at Lincoln Park High School. "There’s gun shootings, violence, robberies, people getting killed, people getting raped."
But the programs might be at risk. President Bush recently proposed cutting after-school funding from $1.1 billion to $800 million next year for 21st Century Community Centers, which basically encompasses after-school programs for students attending schools with low performances and high levels of poverty. BUILD receives additional money from donations, corporations, grants and its fundraising dinner held in April. But it’s not easy to find enough money for all of the programs. "We basically start with nothing every year," says Blasingame-Buford.
Despite the obstacles, it’s the small successes that make the job fulfilling for Blasingame-Buford and Alfredo Calixto, BUILD’s executive director. "You hear about gangs and violence and get depressed," says Calixto. "And then you hear about someone who makes it and you just say, ‘Yea, that’s beautiful.’ "