Bridging the Opportunity Divide

An Unlikely Bond Between Chicago Teens and Veterans Is Saving Lives in the City

August 24, 2018
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An Unlikely Bond Between Chicago Teens and Veterans Is Saving Lives in the City
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The YMCA's Urban Warriors program pairs Chicago youth with veterans to help navigate the threat of violence and process trauma. Photo courtesy of the YMCA
A YMCA-helmed program found that partnering at-risk youth with former service members lowered rates of violence while boosting self esteem.

“How many people have you killed?”

Former Marine Julio Cortes looked into the face of the curious teen interrogating him.

“Next question,” Cortes replied.

Those are the kinds of questions we’re taught never to ask a veteran: Have you ever seen someone die? Have you been shot? Who did you kill?

But in Chicago’s Urban Warriors program, those kinds of questions are not only permitted but encouraged. That’s because the teens participating in the program have more likely than not witnessed or experienced similar violence themselves.

Cortes is one of 40 veterans currently participating in Urban Warriors, a program operated by the YMCA of Metro Chicago’s Youth Safety and Violence Prevention (YSVP) initiative. The program uses trauma-informed therapy to create and implement community projects throughout the city. Urban Warriors, one of five YSVP projects, is a five-year-old initiative with branches in a handful of Chicago’s most under-resourced neighborhoods, and it pairs veterans with youth who are at risk of committing or being subject to violence.

As nearly half of all homicides in Chicago are attributed to gangs, the need for effective intervention in the city is dire. Nationally, the percentage of those in gangs who are under 18 years old hovers around 35 percent. Psychologists have found that if young people find mentors outside the streets, they are motivated to stay away from gangs.

And that’s exactly what Urban Warriors has found effective in building up the self-esteem and self-worth of the kids in its program. The teens look up to and respect veterans, who can relate to what it feels like living in a war zone. They know what it’s like to fear for one’s life. And talking about the looming specter of violence in their lives helps youth process the resulting trauma.

“Kids identify themselves as soldiers, because they live in war zone communities,” Eddie Bocanegra, the co-founder of Urban Warriors, tells NPR. “They make the parallels between, veterans, you know, carry guns, we carry guns. They got ranks, we got ranks. They got their Army uniforms, we got our gang colors.”

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A female Urban Warriors cohort and their mentors.Photo courtesy of the YMCA

During one recent conversation, Cortes and some teens in his group were discussing what it feels like right before getting shot in a drive-by shooting — the anxiety, sweat and anticipation that hits you right before you think someone’s going to pull the trigger.

“And then it turns out to be an ice-cream truck driving by,” Cortes tells NationSwell. “These kids are over-alert and watching their backs, even when they’re in the safest environments. They try to explain that feeling to other people who don’t get it. But I do.”

As a former gang member, Bocanegra knows what he’s talking about. At 14, he shot and killed a kid he mistook for a rival gang member, which landed him in prison for 14 years. While doing time, his brother — a decorated Army veteran — told him to seek therapy for the trauma he experienced on the streets and in prison.

Bocanegra listened to his brother and sought out counseling. Eventually he started working with anti-violence programs and, out of curiosity, began surveying gang members in 2013 to see who they looked up to.

“It all started based on this question we put out with high-risk youths: whom they felt safe and protected with,” Jadhira Sanchez, the director of Urban Warriors, tells NationSwell. “We gave them options such as EMT’s, cops, lawyers, doctors and veterans. And they chose veterans. That’s who they looked up to; that’s who they respected.”

For 16 weeks, three different cohorts of 20 teens — separated by sex — are partnered with five veterans. Each Saturday, the teens get to talk to each other about issues they’re currently dealing with. They get to ask questions of and seek guidance from the veterans. A social worker who can help to navigate services, such as applying for college or jobs, sits in on every conversation.

All the veterans and case workers are trained in trauma-informed care to help them navigate tense or uncomfortable conversations, but they say the single most effective approach has been simply giving the teens a chance to connect with people with whom they can relate.

“We found youth who [talk about] going into the gang world, and they compare that to basic training in the military branch. When you lose your buddy or brother in combat, some people compare that to losing someone on the streets. When you have those comparisons, they open to each other up because they feel on the same level,” Sanchez says.

“I had family who were involved with gangs, which means that even if you don’t claim it or wear the colors, you’re [guilty by association],” says Cortes. “Think about being 10 years old and your mom takes you to the good stores, and you see all the cool clothes but you can’t get it because of the colors on it. A 10-year-old has to process that. It’s little things like that.”

Urban Warriors participant William Javier can relate to the above. Javier, 17, grew up in Pilsen with an abusive father. He saw his friends join gangs and had to dodge stray bullets countless times.  

“You could literally die, going across [the street] to get some food, from a random bullet that wasn’t meant for you,” he says.

It resulted in him living inside his bedroom — trapped in his home by fear. But one day, tired of being inside and wanting to “be out there,” he thought about joining a gang.

“That life slowly starts grabbing at you and pulling you in. And my closest friend started to notice it,” he says.

That same friend pushed him into joining the Urban Warriors program two years ago. Javier was the teen who asked Cortes how many people he killed. (The veterans are not required to answer every question.)

“I knew he killed someone,” Javier says. “It was still a little [shocking] for some reason. But after that, I started to feel comfortable with him.”

Beneficial outcomes of the program have been mostly anecdotal, though Sanchez says they do survey participants before and after they complete the program. But the stories coming out of Chicago’s program are promising, and could be replicated in cities like Los Angeles or New Orleans that are also grappling with gang violence.

“I have youth that never wanted to go to college and now want to,” Sanchez says. “That’s a huge victory.”

Javier’s involvement in Urban Warriors has even saved his life, he says.

“I never saw myself graduating or living at all past freshman year. I saw myself in the grave,” he says. “After Urban Warriors, I saw myself in a better light — more open and confident and positive in life. Now, I’m close to graduating. I’m living happily. And doing the things I’m doing.”

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