Most youth outreach programs aspire to engage the minds of adolescents and motivate them to pursue academic success, particularly at the collegiate level. However, in their partnership with Concordia University in River Forest, Youth Outreach Services (YOS) tries to take this goal a step further.

YOS, which serves parts of the West Side, including Austin, aspires to motivate the youth they serve to think like university students even before they reach high school.

On a recent Saturday that plan was put into motion as students from Proviso West High School and Oak Park YOS locations, attended a “Freedom and Responsibility” workshop at Concordia University, in the Koehneke Community Center.

The workshop was coordinated by Concordia students and YOS Prevention Manager Sandra Harrison, who has been affiliated with YOS for 11 years. She first became involved with the organization as a volunteer parent while she lived in Austin.

“Douglas Middle School became involved in the Douglas Peace Project, where I was invited to participate,” she said. “Two years later, I began working part-time as a typing teacher. I worked with the children to improve their computer skills.”

Harrison currently resides in the Bellwood area although she continues to visit the Youth Outreach office in Austin, located at 5910 W. Division.

“I still stay in touch with many of the students who went through YOS in Austin,” she said.

Regardless of a child’s background, geographic location or interest, Harrison says, preparation and motivation are the keys to success. The married mother of six has inspired each of her children to become involved in the programs provided by YOS as both participants and mentors.

The “Freedom and Responsibility” workshop was only the second such event held at the Concordia campus. The purpose of the summit was to take YOS students out of their respective West Side communities and put them in a university setting. During the four-hour session the students learned about paying for college through FAFSA, grants and students loans. The students also heard about how honing their leadership skills and setting goals early will pay off in their lives later.

“It’s never too early to think about college in terms of what you want to study and how you plan to pay for it because there are so many scholarships available to students,” said Joshua Davis, Concordia admissions counselor.

“Now is the time to think about your future because this is the time where you are at your most creatively visionary,” said Harrison. “I myself got married at 20, had six children and only 20 years later realized I wanted to further my education by going back to school. While I have no regrets, I do think my life would have been different if I had made the decision to go back to school before I got married,” she added. Harrison received her bachelor’s degree in business this year and is currently attending graduate school.

One student in attendance was a Proviso West freshman named Ariel who was motivated to get involved with YOS through the insistence of her siblings.

“They were encouraging me to become part of YOS because it offered tutoring, mentoring and events that were geared toward my interest in creative writing and poetry,” said Ariel who a few years earlier, like Harrison, moved from Austin to Bellwood. Poetry is her true passion, and she wants to attend Columbia University after she graduates.

Concordia Psychology Professor Dr. Randy Venzke first contacted Youth Outreach Services three years ago. He wanted to give his students the opportunity to mentor teens. Concordia students began working as interns in after-school mentoring sessions.

Many of the pre-teens and teens who come through the YOS office in Melrose Park are encouraged to come by former clients, family members, their schools (such as Proviso West) or Illinois Department of Human and Family Services, which co-sponsors the organization.

Youth Outreach Services currently serves many West Side and west suburban communities including Bellwood, Maywood, Melrose Park, Oak Park, and Austin, each working with approximately 30 youths daily.

For more information about the organization and its events, visit the website at