YSVP participants
May 22, 2023

Creating a Space for Youth and Veterans to Find Their Purpose, Potential, and Each Other

Thousands of young people in Chicago are growing up in communities impacted by gun violence, domestic violence, poverty, bullying, abuse, and loss. To address these critical issues, the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago takes a comprehensive, trauma-informed approach to violence prevention, specifically in neighborhoods in Chicago that have been the most impacted by violence. 

Through the Y’s partnerships with respected members of the community, such as veterans and supportive law enforcement officials, youth participants are able to work to break cycles of violence. The Y’s Youth Safety and Violence Prevention (YSVP) program looks at past exposure to trauma as a driver of future dangerous behaviors and focuses on empowering young people to become the very best versions of themselves. The program is designed to build confidence through a variety of outlets, with a focus on the arts, storytelling, and service to the community. In particular, the Urban Warriors initiative — the longest-running YSVP program — provides a structured curriculum-based approach that pairs military veterans with young people in some of Chicago’s neighborhoods most affected by violence, including Austin, Garfield Park, Humboldt Park, Little Village, Pilsen, South Chicago, Woodlawn, and neighboring communities.  

Urban Warriors reduces the traumatic effects of violence on young people and supports participants through 16 weeks of structured programming. Sessions are facilitated by post-9/11 military veterans who are trained and supported by YSVP staff. The curriculum consists of five thematic areas: belonging, positive identity development, cognitive restructuring, coping, and community engagement. Together, the veterans and youth participants discuss their lived experiences with violence, develop and share coping skills, and identify their individual strengths. Participants then explore how they can channel these new skills to benefit their communities. Above all, Urban Warriors fosters a uniquely supportive, reciprocal relationship between two groups of people that understand each other in ways most could never comprehend. 

Since the launch of Urban Warriors in 2014, more than 400 young people and more than 80 veterans have participated. Together, they have completed more than 38 service projects, including community clean-ups, food and toiletry distribution to unhoused community members, and other service projects. 

The following are results from a survey of participants:

  • 100% of Urban Warriors youth participants and veteran mentors would recommend the program to a friend. 
  • 82% of Urban Warriors youth participants felt that they were able to expand their network.  
  • 82% of Urban Warriors youth participants felt that they have more people to support them due to participating. 
  • 75% of veteran mentors said that the program allowed them to gain a better understanding of the community they serve. 

With the generous support of our business and government partners, the future of the YSVP program — and our youth participants — looks bright. In 2022, the Y received a $200,000 gift from McDonald’s to support and enhance YSVP programming. The State of Illinois, through its Department of Human Services, also continues to provide significant grant funding to empower the Y to deliver on its mission through YSVP services. With friends and supporters like that, the sky’s the limit for Chicago youth!