Sunshine staff Chuck Harris gives an award to a 5th grade graduate at the end of the school year.

In June we discussed the negative impact school closures had on our Woodlawn community 6 years ago.  We discussed how many students coming from shuttered schools struggled to rebound academically, felt unsafe attending new schools, and how families felt the loss of long-standing social supports which were severed in the process.  

The Woodlawn community did not accept this as the fate for their children.  We are proud to be one of several nonprofit organizations which have risen to the challenge of  meeting these academic, social, and emotional gaps. The need is still great and yet, there are more than a dozen after-school programs targeting academic support as well as mentoring, art exposure, and sports.  Metrosquash, the YMCA, Future Ties, Living Hope Church, Blackstone Bicycle Works and the Kleo center as well as separate after school programs offered inside our local elementary schools Wadsworth, Woodlawn, and Fiske, all offer support to youth in various ways.  We are grateful to all who help shoulder this responsibility but want to recognize that even if all of these community based programs were filled to capacity, there are still children who have been affected who would not have access to the safety net that these youth programs provide. 

At Sunshine our mission is to seek the renewal of the city through ministries of discipleship, mercy, and justice.  For us, this plays out in our work with over 300 youth annually through discipleship that builds trusting relationships over time to work towards spiritual, emotional, social, and vocational flourishing.  We come alongside our neighbors to offer youth support services. Our experience, along with outside research encourages us to keep up our approach, which over time, has proven effective towards building a flourishing community for parents and children.  Studies show the presence of intentional adult mentors increases graduation rates by as much as 23%, decreases crime rates by 44%, and increases college enrollment by 55%. We have also begun to see the emotional and spiritual benefits of implementing trauma-informed care practices into our programs.

Because of our Cabrini roots, we were especially interested in the book “You Can’t Be What You Can’t See” by Milbrey W. McLaughlin, which examines the long-term effects of an after-school tutoring and mentoring program Community Youth Creative Learning Experience (CYCLE) in Cabrini Green in the 1980’s.  This program offered a comprehensive after-school program offering tutoring, enrichment, scholarships, summer camps, and more.  Through data collection, and in-depth interviews with participants and staff, she finds that almost all had graduated high school, escaped poverty, and so had their children.  In fact, a high number also ended up becoming mentors themselves.  

Through  the work we do with youth at Sunshine, we also have started seeing the long-term effects of the approach we have taken since moving from Cabrini to Woodlawn in 2004.  We are seeing the benefits of offering exposure to the arts through our middle school and high school initiatives. Middle School Program Coordinator Jazlyn Anderson is passionate about giving youth the opportunity to express themselves in constructive ways through the arts.  “I love to watch the students come alive through exploring various mediums- visual arts, dance, theatre, gardening and creative writing!” Our basketball team and game times after school offer healthy ways to express physical gifts and to work off energy in a positive way while learning key life lessons. The majority of our high school students have graduated and many have gone on to college or the military.  We are especially excited for several of our college seniors who will be graduating at the end of this year.  

While admittedly there are multiple reasons our community has been disinvested in the past, the school closings were just one of the more recent detrimental blows to sustaining a flourishing community. Through academic support, arts exposure, sports opportunities, and spiritual discipleship, we join our other Woodlawn partners, committed to filling the gap left partially by the closing of the schools. We are encouraged to see the fruit of the labor along with the financial support of so many who believe in the success we are seeing supporting one child; one family at a time.