Although Chicago has suffered a violent summer, Zakat Foundation of America Community Center Chicago (ZFCCC) in South Shore has been working through mentoring, outreach and collaborations to reduce violence now and into the future.
The multifaceted approach ZFCCC Director Laila Muhammad has overseen is heavily weighted on the prevention end.
“If you catch children, especially young boys, when they are still open, still have a light in their eyes, they still have the fresh innocence of a child, before they become numb,” Ms. Muhammad said, “You can give them some tools to resist the pull of gangs and violence, because they will run into that.”
“And then in the future, when they see death all around them, it begins to turn the light off and the innocence is taken.”
A stunningly pragmatic example of the problem of violence, but also hope for reducing it, came out of a CeaseFire-sponsored event Ms. Muhammad attended along with community leaders and gang leaders.
“The conversation we had was about “giving a pass” meaning if the gangs have a ‘target’ and plan to kill that person, and if they see that person around any children, family, or anyone else who is not involved, they agree to ‘give a pass’ and not shoot them, to wait until they are alone.” Ms. Muhammad said.
The great majority of the gang leaders agreed to that, she said, though sadly they did not agree to stop killing.
During the summer, high-school-age Zakat Foundation of America (ZF) volunteers have participated in mentoring training through Loyola University and CeaseFire that will equip them to mentor grade-school students on a weekly basis.
Ms. Laila explained the importance of mentoring young students.
Through mentoring, she said, “We can give them confidence and pride in themselves. [Staying away from violence] is difficult unless they have some definite empowerment and self-esteem,” she said. “Children become part of the violence because they don’t have the confidence to stay out of it.”
The backpack and school supplies ZF is now distributing as children return to school are one way to help them feel confident and excited about learning.
ZFCCC collaborations with Families and Prisoners United, Blessed Child, and the organization Imagine Englewood If have sent volunteers and resources into Englewood, one of Chicago’s struggling neighborhoods.
The ZFCCC Creative Camp , which finishes in late August, has given its students, ages nine to 12, creative outlets through which to express themselves and work out inner conflicts, but also brought them into a circle of mentoring at a crucial time in their lives.
Earlier this summer, ZFCCC volunteers distributed sports equipment to the neighborhood elementary school, encouraging students to channel their energy and aggression into healthy competition and activity.
Ms. Muhammad stressed the need to continue these programs throughout the year.
“We need support to empower inner-city youth to have confidence and the desire to become all that they can be, to live long lives,” she said. “The virus of violence spreads. It affects and infects everyone in the community. Today it might be my child, tomorrow it might be your child.