Warren King recalled a dream he had 12 years ago where he was being summoned by a young black male, but was unable to respond.
After awakening, King knew it was a sign that he needed to respond to the urgent call for mentoring and outreach services for youths on the West Side. That inspired King to start Kidz Express, a volunteer organization based in Austin. Located at 342 S. Laramie, the non-profit entity offers tutoring, mentoring and such classes as dance, pottery and culinary arts. Kidz Express serves youth as young as five years old to age 18.
When he decided to start his youth program, King reached out to his church, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Oak Park, for help.
“I knew that there was a calling in me to not only reach out to the young people on the West Side but also help bridge the gap between Oak Park and Austin through an outreach program,” King said.
The program started originally at Good Shepherd on Saturdays before moving to a larger space at Laramie in 2005. Along with Kidz Express, the married father of three also operates Well-Spring Management, a business that sells environmentally-friendly products, and he works as an agricultural consulting.
“This is very much a labor of love for all the volunteers,” King said. “We are still a low-budget operation, but our 20 volunteers and board members are really the heart of the program. I would like to eventually increase my volunteer base so that I can have one mentor for every two or three children, instead of the ratio being one to 20.”
The program currently has about 100 regular youth participating weekly and welcomes about a half-dozen new kids every month. Still, space limitations have forced some kids to be turned away, which King is none too happy about, but he says: “if our facility was the size of the Taj Mahal it would still not be large enough to keep up with the enormous need.”
When Octavia Dillon first came to Kidz Express, she was only 10 years old and used to spend her Saturdays at the Austin Branch Chicago Public Library, formerly at 4941 W. Quincy, where he mother was a volunteer. For a few Saturdays, Dillon would notice a school bus picking up a group of children from the library to talk to Kidz Express. She eventually asked about the program.
“My mother knew [Kidz Express board member] Duane Ehresman well and felt comfortable with me taking part in the program on Saturdays,” said Dillon, now age 20 and studying law at Harold Washington College. “It really is like a family dynamic at Kidz Express. It was a place I felt safe, and they encouraged the children to not only work to make themselves better, but also work toward making the community better.”
It’s a message that resonated so much with Dillon that she decided to become a volunteer with the organization.
“I think the thing about the organization that stands out the most for me is the fact that we’re all looking to build lifelong relationships with the kids,” she said. “Some of the kids we serve have very few positive influences in their immediate environment and they are looking for that diversion from the corner dwellers who could steer them in the wrong direction. It is very fulfilling to be able to offer them an alternative.”