Fifteen years ago Bill Curry came to Chicago with one goal in mind: to work with young people. Unfortunately, the school he moved here to help start wasn’t as far along as he thought. Curry and his wife Marcie, a teacher, worried it wasn’t the most stable situation to be in with their young family.
“What we decided to do instead was see if we could start our own nonprofit to help disadvantaged kids,” Curry said.
Through word of mouth, the Currys’ efforts came to the attention of Arlora Sutter, the executive director of Breakthrough Urban Ministries in East Garfield Park. Breakthrough had established women’s and men’s shelters, as well as an employment program and food pantry in the neighborhood, and was now looking to address youth development.
“There was an obvious need in the community,” said Sutter. “We had been serving adults—helping with employment, food and shelter. However, no one was focusing on our youth: they are our future. We had to catch young people upstream and give them the best chance for success. Otherwise, we will have to deal with all the problems 20 years later.”
It was exactly the type of challenge Curry was hoping to find.
[pullquote]Mentor network of coaches + teachers scaffolds each at-risk student w/stable adult presence + support[/pullquote]
The two joined forces and developed the Breakthrough Youth Network, now housed in the sleek, new $13.5 million FamilyPlex building at the corner of Kedzie and Carroll.
As chief program officer, Curry oversees a team of about 20 staff and several hundred volunteers to provide a myriad of youth, family and community programs and services.
In addition to academic tutoring, the Youth Network serves more than 750 children with classes in culinary arts, digital photography, film editing, robotics, dance and spoken word. There are also a variety of sports and fitness activities and a preschool program.
“So instead of a traditional school athletic director/coach position, I used my teaching and coaching ability in a community context,” said Curry, who is also the boys’ basketball coach at Westinghouse College Prep High School.
Young people come to Breakthrough for a range of activities—from sports to culinary arts to robotics. The center works to engage each student in multiple programs, in order to form a network of instructor/mentors that builds stability in their lives.
Curry and Sutter aimed to find a way to create a program at Breakthrough that would positively impact the lives of children in East Garfield Park—and give them a network of support.
As Curry put it, “it takes a village to raise a child. It’s just a matter of what village.” After some research, they developed the Breakthrough Network Model, an idea that he says continues to inspire program managers throughout the organization every day.
A key finding of the study revealed that turnover in mentors is high, leaving kids struggling with the “revolving door of adults in their lives” that resulted.
So at Breakthrough, students may start with an academic tutor or a sports program and then branch out into other arts and science classes, which allows them to have a team of mentors.
“Rather than me trying to predict who a child will connect with, this system allows them to connect with a variety of mentors,” Curry explains. “If one mentor leaves, the disruption is minimal.”
The Breakthrough Beginners program provides early childhood education—one of the most critical factors for later academic success. According to chief program officer Bill Curry, “Parents tell us they now have hope for the community. They are finding ways to help improve the neighborhood.”
Curry, who lives with his wife and three children just a block from the FamilyPlex, says he has seen positive change come to the neighborhood due to the work of Breakthrough staff, donors, volunteers, families and children who enliven the facility.
“Parents tell us they now have hope for the community and are not looking for ways to leave,” Curry says. “Instead, they are finding ways to help improve the neighborhood.”
Curry says for those thinking about volunteering but who haven’t committed yet, starting with a class that has a limited time span is a good way to begin.
“You can start it. You can succeed at it. You can finish it.”
He cautions there are always challenges: “I would encourage volunteers to be patient with the kids and be patient with the impact you are going to have. You are going to make an impact but you probably aren’t going to see it in the short term.”
But figuring out over time how to connect with the kids has its rewards, said Sutter. “Kids are looking for mentors who are real and authentic and will care about them and who will hold a high standard that proves that they believe that they can achieve anything they set out to do.”