gary comer

Gary Comer Youth Center on the Comer Education Campus

The headlines in Chicago tell the story: From the pandemic to police brutality to community violence, “there’s so much happening in our society,” says Santrice Martin, director of advancement at the Gary Comer Youth Center on the Comer Education Campus. “Young people need someone to talk to — having mental health resources for them is absolutely critical right now.” 

Part of the Comer Education Campus in Greater Grand Crossing, the Gary Comer Youth Center (GCYC) fosters academic success, leadership development, and health and wellness for South Side youth ages 12 and up. The center works to address the effects of community violence by offering mental health services for its nearly 2,000 members, and to reduce violence by teaching restorative justice practices.

According to Chicago Department of Public Health data, the violent crime rate in Greater Grand Crossing is nearly triple that of Chicago overall, which contributes to chronic stress and decreased mental well-being for adults and youth alike. With the help of a $39,500 grant in 2020 from UChicago Medicine’s Block Hassenfeld Casdin (BHC) Collaborative for Family Resilience, GCYC has expanded its mental health and restorative justice programming.

GCYC’s counseling team used BHC grant funds to launch or expand a number of programs, says Fredricka Holloway, associate director of youth opportunities. For example, Male Talk Mondays is an onsite and virtual safe space for young men to share, ask questions, and connect with male youth advisors. Young women can join in Women Talk Wednesdays as well as Rockstars, a teen group focused on healthy decision-making and life choices. And LGBTQ+ youth can find support through the Comer Cares initiative.

Youth advisors also provide one-on-one counseling. “Many young people don’t have the outlets to have those dialogues about all the things they’re dealing with,” says Holloway, “although it’s very much needed. We’re here and have services that are available and comfortable, group or one-on-one, to talk about trauma or any other experience.”

Toi Williams, GCYC’s restorative justice coordinator, says that teaching restorative justice practices goes a long way toward helping young people process trauma and restore relationships. Peace circles at the center are “a space for talking about hard issues and about how to become peacemakers,” she says.

Mock court sessions might begin with scenarios around how a young person is disciplined in school, “but very quickly they evolve into talking about what’s going on in our world today and what’s recently happened in the news. That gives rise to the emotions behind what’s taking place, and what restorative justice looks like — how to move forward with forgiveness even if justice is not served.”

The GCYC and the University also partner on a number of other fronts:

  • The UChicago Neighborhood Schools Program (NSP) provides after-school tutors for the GCYC Excel and Study Buddies programs for high school and middle school students. “The NSP is essential to that work,” says Will Irvin, the GCYC associate director of college preparation. “Without them, we wouldn’t have tutors, since we don’t have designated funding for tutoring programs.” In addition, the NSP team connects GCYC with student interns from the University and other UChicago programs, and Irvin was a member of the first cohort of the University’s Certificate in Nonprofit Management program.
  • GCYC staff members sit on UChicago Medicine’s Community Advisory Council and participate in its working groups dedicated to trauma care and violence prevention and maternal and child health. “The UCM team is always welcoming the community in,” says Tyra Owens, GCYC’s community resource manager, “and wants input on how to make events more accessible to the community and how to bring in more youth voices.”
  • GCYC hosts Community Grand Rounds events, and UChicago Medicine health care providers and Pritzker School of Medicine students provide clinical expertise for GCYC Youth Health Summits, youth-led discussions on topics like sex education, substance use, and — most recently — debunking myths about COVID-19.

“If we can do our part to make sure young people have access to ways that they can share what they’re feeling now, we can make a huge impact,” Martin says. “We’re so grateful for the partnership with the University that’s supporting all of this work around mental and emotional health.”

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