A veteran working in Chicago's Safe Passage program

Craig Duff

Meet the Hard-Working Veterans Offering a Safe Passage to Chicago Youth

One organization is reducing student loan debt and violence at the same time.

“Veterans come from an environment,” says Eli Williamson, president of Leave No Veteran Behind (LNVB), “in which everyday they understand what their purpose is.” He continues: “When they come out of the military there’s this moment in which they say well, ‘what’s my new purpose?’”

Williamson asked himself this very question shortly after returning from a deployment to Iraq in 2004. His homecoming was met with the news that his student loans — which he used to pay for his college education before he went overseas — had come out of deferment. His friend and LNVB co-founder, Roy Sartin, was in the same situation. So the two army buddies from Chicago decided to write Oprah, in the hopes that the same charity that inspired her to give away cars might finance their student debt. When sharing their plans with other veterans, they discovered that student debt is a widespread burden for many returning servicemen and women.

Eventually they settled on a simple plan. “What if we were to raise dollars,” says Williamson, “apply those dollars directly to the veteran’s student loan account, and then require that veteran to give back 100 to 400 hours of community service once that debt has been paid?” From this idea, the nonprofit was formed.

Hakki Gurkan, a Chicago police officer and a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, accessed it for student loan assistance in 2011. His mother’s cancer had recently come out of remission, his father had been through hip replacement surgery, and Gurkan struggled to financially provide for both of them. After his loans were paid, Gurkan’s service project created LNVB’s most visible program: Safe Passage.

In response to the widespread violence among youth in parts of Chicago, LNVB approached the Chicago school system to see if veterans could help. Tipped off about repeated violent incidents on the corner of 35th and Martin Luther King Drive, LNVB deployed 20 veterans to the location to stand guard, positively engage with youth and maintain the peace. Several weeks of calm led to expansion, and now, more than 400 veterans have participated in the Safe Passage program, positioned at several hot spots for crime in tough Chicago neighborhoods. On any given school day, about 130 veterans patrol the streets. As a result, the Chicago police has seen a significant decline in violence in the communities served.

Coming from all walks of life, the service members are paid $10 an hour and work during the times that students are traveling to and from school. That important off-time between shifts gives veterans the hours they need to search for jobs and to attend interviews. LNVB also provides its workers resume assistance.

Williamson and Sartin see the skills of returning veterans as a largely untapped resource. And part of that skill set is a sense of mission, whether applied to an operation overseas or a local effort to keep America’s youth safe.

Says Williamson, “Our ability to come back as veterans and be useful to people other than ourselves is critical.”