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On a rainy spring evening, a group of young people are busily chopping vegetables, whisking olive oil and spices into salad dressing and cutting bread into cubes in Oakley Square’s community kitchen. They’re preparing panzanella, a rustic Italian bread salad.

The children—some teens, some as young as 5 or 6—gather every other week for cooking lessons like this. The classes are hosted through a partnership between Oakley Square, the West Side apartment complex where the kids live, and Chicago Cares, a nonprofit that links volunteers with service opportunities.

Teaching children to cook, using recipes that are easy, healthy and affordable for their families, is just one of a slate of activities organized to keep young people at Oakley Square engaged in something productive. The aim is to keep them away from the troubles and temptations of the surrounding neighborhood.

Cooking lessons to boxcar racing: At West Side apts, keeping kids off the streets opens career possibilities

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Since taking over once-troubled Oakley Square from federal housing authorities, nonprofit management company The Community Builders, or TCB Inc., has made engaging young people a central part of its plan to transform the complex into a real home for residents.

TCB relies heavily on partnerships—with city departments, churches, nonprofits like Chicago Cares, or private institutions such as Rush University Medical Center, which supports an onsite health clinic. TCB’s annual On The Table event helps bolster those relationships.

At TCB’s first On The Table in 2014, ways to help youth were a central part of the conversation with community partners. Now cooking lessons, hip-hop dance lessons, homework tutoring, tumbling classes, an open-mic night, an annual camping trip and a project to build and race boxcars are all a part of the activity mix. Two TCB staffers, Tyra Owens and Quincee Herbert, work full-time on youth-related programs and events.

“Thinking creatively” and exposing children and teens to new ideas, information and careers is critical, says Owens.

You can’t get much more creative than building and racing boxcars, something that young people and families will do this spring via an innovative project that teams them up with students from nearby Phoenix Military Academy.

Four young children gathered around a boxcar smiling

TCB hopes the project and the partnership with Phoenix, which has a math and science focus, will get young people interested in careers in those areas and spark their interest in enrolling at the school. Phoenix will also offer math tutoring to children from Oakley.

“People might not think that building boxcars involves STEM [science, technology, engineering and math], but it does,” says Rose Mabwa, TCB’s community life manager.

“Many young people feel they don’t have the right skill set to do or become what they envision,” says Owens. “They need a lot of exposure and reality checks. Exposure sparks an idea of, ‘Hey, that’s an avenue for me. One day I could be a nurse or an engineer.’”

Part three of our series exploring the Oakley Square community and the impact of On the Table.

In part one, Rose Mabwa explained changes the community made to address safety and crime. Read more: At West Side Housing Complex, Inventing a Place to Call Home

In part two, nurse practitioner Terry Gallagher took us inside the on-site clinic newly opened at the complex, to integrate routine health care into residents’ lives. Read more: Building Better Health by Bringing the Clinic Home

Owens’ main focus is to find ways to engage Oakley Square’s “disconnected” youth: young people who are not in school or employed.

“Those are the ones who get easily lured into drugs and gangs,” says Mabwa. “They live in the moment and don’t think about tomorrow. That particular crowd needs a lot of engagement.”

At this year’s On The Table, young people will be part of the conversation. It’s important to give youth a chance to share their ideas and opinions themselves, Owens and Herbert agree.

“We’ve done a good job of looking at what kids want,” says Herbert. “I would like kids at the table to figure out what they want, to feel like they have a voice.”