At age 15, Anderson was on the brink of becoming another statistic. He witnessed his first homicide when he was 6 years old, soon after his father left, and his brothers served time for gang-related violence. Rival gangs targeted him, and Anderson’s school was threatening to expel him.
That’s when the Y stepped in. Outreach workers with the YMCA of Metro Chicago’s Youth Safety and Violence Prevention (YSVP) initiative knew Anderson from the streets of Little Village. They were aware of his problems, but they could also see his potential. Ultimately, they convinced the school principal to give him another chance.
Eddie Bocanegra, co-executive director of YSVP, says that it’s easy to label youth like Anderson as “thugs.” When Eddie looks at Anderson, though, he doesn’t see a “bad kid.” He sees an open wound.
“If someone was bleeding, you would rush to help them,” Eddie says. “But there are wounds that go unnoticed—psychological and emotional wounds. A lot of these kids are silently suffering, and all we do is write them off as a ‘lost cause.’”
Last summer, 15 youth expressed themselves by creating a floor-to-ceiling mural in the YSVP program space. Volunteers from University of Chicago, Northeastern University and Adler School of Professional Psychology worked side-by-side with the youth as mentors. The mural lives on as a testament to the power of creating peace through mentorship and community collaboration.
Last June, Anderson was inside the YSVP headquarters in Chicago’s South Side with a paintbrush in his hand and a smile on his face. He was part of a team of youth from Little Village painting a wall-length mural about the power of Chicago youth, with DJs, dancers and artists infusing the city with color and culture.
“We’re not in the business of creating Picassos,” Eddie says of the mural. “We want to find ways to help these kids navigate through some very challenging times in their lives.”
“We call them protective factors,” explains Ryan Lugalia-Hollon, co-executive director at YSVP. “If you think of gangs, drugs and violence as risk factors, we’re trying to build protective factors of positive social connections, support from a caring adult and conflict resolution skills. The mural project is a great example of that.”
At the start and finish of each painting session, Anderson and a half-dozen other teens sit down with YSVP staff and volunteers for a “check in,” where they can open up about difficult topics like domestic abuse and gang recruitment.
“All these kids need is an opportunity to do something positive, and to be set up to succeed,” Eddie says. “When you validate and reward them for their work, you’re letting them know that their emotions and life have meaning.”
A year after nearly being expelled, Anderson has fully re-engaged with school. Some of his paintings were featured in the National Museum of Mexican Art, and his success as an artist gives him the confidence to start thinking about college.