Danny's Success Story
Danny, age 20, did much of his growing up surrounded by gang activity – a fact that conditioned early choices, but did not predict the full course of his life.
“I was born into a caring family that lived in Logan Square where there were lots of gangs that began to influence me. My mother always wanted the best for me, so after 6th grade, we moved to the South Side to give me a better neighborhood. But, of course, there were gangs there too. My new friends and I became more involved in gang relationships and activities. When I finished middle school, I didn’t start high school, so my life revolved around the gang. It wasn’t too long before I got into trouble that landed me first in juvenile detention, then finally in adult prison facilities downstate. I used my time on the inside to begin turning my life around by passing my GED (General Educational Development) test to get my high school diploma.”
Armed with his GED and determination to take another road upon his release, Danny knew that finding a job and forming new relationships were key. “It was really hard to find a job, because many areas of employment are closed to ex-offenders. Finally, I got a leg up on the employment side when I met Guillermo Gutierrez and Chris Hervey, BUILD staff members who got me involved in the NRI (Neighborhood Recovery Initiative) Re-Entry Program that Governor Quinn put in place to provide support for people returning to life on the outside. These men helped me look for a job, opened doors for me to be a speaker at schools to talk about avoiding violence, and supported me in staying focused and positive. Through BUILD, I even met news people from France who were here to learn about the gang problem in the US.
“These relationships and experiences helped me to set goals, not give up, and move forward. When I was in a gang, I saw fellow gang members as family, but the more people I met at BUILD, the more I realized I’d found a new family that had my back. Now, I’m taking courses at Triton College, will get an Associate’s Degree in psychology, and may become a youth counselor who reaches back and helps kids stay out of trouble. And, in March, I started a job at Just Manufacturing as an equipment packer. I am living out my values that have set this new course for my life – respect, loyalty, dedication and perseverance. I am proud of the successes I’ve achieved so far and know I’ll achieve more in the future!”
Jermeisha's success story
Jermeisha, age 12, is a 7th grader at Leif Ericson Academy and lives in the Fifth City neighborhood in Chicago's West Side.
“The neighborhood I live in is not safe at all. You see gangbangers, drug dealers, people fighting and robbing, and kids getting shot because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes I’d get caught up in the fighting, but my Daddy told me ‘you’re too pretty to be fighting!’ I attend Leif Ericson Academy and my school is good. I feel safe there. Some teachers are brilliant and cool and others are hard on us, but I like most of them because they show us that they care. My biggest challenge at school is people talking about me and bullying me about how I look and how I dress.”
Jermeisha, caught between negative and positive people and places, is faced daily with choices that can take her in very different directions. “I was feeling discouraged by getting picked on when I met this wonderful and inspiring tutor, Mr. Ramiro (Rodriguez, a Youth Development Specialist), from BUILD’s After School C.A.R.E. Program (Culture Academic Recreation Enrichment). He helped me with my homework, my problems, and my attitude. In my free time, I attended one of BUILD’s annual diversity conferences and went to their winter program activities. I met new people, like Mrs. Angella (another BUILD Specialist), who helped me bring up my grades and showed me that you can be happier with different types of attitudes.“Now I’m trying to be a good girl, a better person. Mr. Ramiro and Mrs. Angella tell me that I’m helpful. I want to excel in reading because I get a better understanding of things through reading. I also want my neighbor- hood to be a safe place where I am able to walk outside and don’t have to worry about drug dealers on the corners. And someday I want to own a beauty salon or go to Southern Illinois University or Northern Illinois University and maybe be a pediatrician.
“If a friend of mine asked me about BUILD, I would tell her that it is a good place and she should sign up. They help you with your homework, your attitudes, and your problems. They are great people who love kids, are very helpful, and set a good example for us. They helped me set goals, telling me that I can do anything if I put my heart and efforts into reaching my goals. Just like my Dad, they tell me “you’re too beautiful for bad attitudes!”
Aramis's success story
Aramis , age 17, is a senior at Steinmetz College Prep and grew up in Austin, the West Side community that is now the home of BUILD’s headquarters.
“Growing up, you would always find me in my house after school. My parents were very protective regarding my exposure to the poverty, drugs and violence that surrounded our home and insisted that there would be no porch sitting or hanging out on the streets for me. I just figured my parents knew best, including when they enrolled me in Steinmetz College Prep (formerly known as Steinmetz Academic Centre) in the Belmont-Cragin area – the place where they had gone to high school.”
Even though the school was in a safer community than Austin, it did not provide a safe zone. “I got jumped and bullied there, as an outsider who stuttered and who didn’t feel comfortable looking other students in the eye. I took the bullying for so long and then I exploded out of control. Despite being a good student, inability to control my anger threatened to undermine my academic success.
“Music was an avenue for channeling my energy and curbing my stuttering when I distinguished myself as a rapper by carefully pronouncing every word, but I still didn’t have the confidence to really perform and work a crowd. Becoming involved in BUILD Voices, a poetry performance program that BUILD staff member RIK Vazquez held at Steinmetz, was the beginning of being able to push myself forward with confidence, to express joy or anger in my own voice. I liked the message of BUILD and my music reflected that positivity.”
Armed with a new sense of confidence and purpose, Aramis is creating his way forward. “No longer do I accept bullying from anyone and I hate when I see it happening to other people and, yes, I stand up for them. I also know that kids are dying in my neighborhood and beyond, and we need to stop the violence in our music and in our streets. We need to lower the gun violence that puts youth at risk and I want to be part of making our communities safe. I’ve been accepted at Indiana State University. I want to do so much before I settle down! I’m interested in music, culinary arts, and engineering, but for now I want to be a high school English teacher, to be there for kids, like RIK and BUILD have been there for me, and to be part of reducing violence and keeping kids safe in our schools.”