This week, 65 youths will move into the newly built Uhlich Child Advocate Network (UCAN) Therapeutic Youth Home in North Lawndale as part of a plan by the nonprofit to relocate its North Side campus to the West Side.
The new transitional home, 3640 W. Fillmore St., will serve up to 70 emotionally troubled children between 7 and 17 years-old, according to Tom Vanden Berk, UCAN’s chief executive officer.
“When we named this facility the ‘therapeutic youth home,’ we wanted to emphasize the healing of trauma because all of our kids come from systems of abuse and neglect,” explained Berk. “So the amount of trauma they have had to live with is excessive.”
He added that UCAN is relocating because it has outgrown its headquarters at 3737 N. Mozart St. Additionally, UCAN plans to sell its current campus once phase one, a youth home, and phase two, a new headquarters expected to be complete by summer 2016, building are finished.
“When we decided to relocate we wanted to move closer to the youths we serve and this site had been vacant for years,” said Berk. “This 7.5-acre site was perfect for us because it gave us a chance to put vacant land to good use.”
And the majority of youths living at UCAN are black and Hispanic, according to Fred Long, director of governmental affairs and development for UCAN.
“The youths living in our residential home come from DCFS [Illinois Department of Children and Family Services] and stay with us anywhere from 10 to 14 months depending on how well their treatment goes,” Long said. “Once they leave here they move to foster care or independent living. But if a youth needs more time to receive treatment we will keep them longer.”
Berk said many of the youths have already lived in several foster homes that could not meet their needs.
“One reason these foster homes have been unsuccessful is because of the trauma experienced by many of the youths. This trauma often triggers aggressive behavior and can cause a degree of behavior that is hard to manage in foster care,” Berk said.
The new, three-story, $26 million dorm-style complex includes outside green space, a gymnasium, laundry, computer and conference rooms, and a lounge. In addition, each young person will get her own room.
Currently there are two youths per room at UCAN’s current residential home at 3740 N. California Ave. The new residential home will be staffed 24 hours a day with counselors and therapists. Forty of the new facility’s 500 full-time employees live in North Lawndale, said Long.
The new school year for Chicago Public Schools starts Tuesday and Berk said UCAN provides transportation to and from school for youths, although some older youths are allowed to travel to school by themselves. UCAN youths attend various public schools, including the K-12 UCAN Academy at 3110 W. Grand Ave. in Humboldt Park.
Each year 10,000 youths and families benefit from UCAN’s 30 programs, according to Long, who knows about foster care first-hand.
“I was 10-years-old when my grandmother took custody of me and my six sisters and two brothers,” said Long, a 35-year-old husband and father of two young children. “I have learned through UCAN’s programs to embrace who I am and I have shared my story with other youths to get them to do the same.”
His now-deceased parents lost custody of him and his siblings due to their drug addiction, said Long.
“Prior to my father passing in December and my mother passing in 2011, I tried to establish some sort of relationship with them,” he said. “But for years I held a grudge because of the lives they lived.”
In the end, Long said UCAN’s goal is to help as many youths as possible and hopefully show people that the child welfare system can be helpful with the right support.
“Typically people learn about the child welfare system from a negative point of view. Whether it’s from the media or someone who had a bad experience with the system,” said Long. “Our role at UCAN is to make youths feel different about their situation and to help them overcome any barriers that may prevent them from reaching their full potential.”