For troubled youths, veterans offer shoulders to lean on

Two dozen boys wore cobalt polos and matching grins listening to the keynote speakers of their graduation ceremony. Absent from the event was a Little Village graduate who was recovering after being shot last week.

The boys in the blue polos had all suffered. Some had narrowly escaped gunfire. Some were shooting survivors, some had lost their friends and some had, at one point, found gang culture alluring.

But at La Villita Community Church on Saturday, after graduating from the YMCA of Metro Chicago’s Urban Warriors program, many of the boys had begun to heal. The 16-week peer support program teams youth who’ve endured extreme trauma with recent military veterans, who show the boys positive strategies for coping with loss and improving their mental health.

“Imagine a group of people standing on top of a cliff, holding hands. Imagine a crowd behind them, saying ‘No, don’t jump, you’re not gonna make it,'” said Xavier McElrath-Bey of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “It’s the same thing with gangs.

“We’ve seen people die. Get locked up. Get on death row. We’ve seen what happens to people who jump off that cliff, but for some reason, we all want to jump off the cliff.”

The program matched 10 veterans with 29 boys ages 12 to 18 who’ve grown up in the city’s Little Village or Humboldt Park neighborhoods.

“No one talks about their trauma and what these boys go through the way we talk about veteran trauma,” said Eddie Bocanegra, the program’s executive director. “It’s all PTSD, though. It’s all the same.”

Read more

By Marwa Eltagouri 7/18/15