Throughout its 26-year history, the nonprofit Greater West Town Community Development Project (GWTCDP) has provided free programs to anyone needing help getting ahead in life, according to the organization’s officials. But don’t just take their word for it.
“Listen to our participants and you be the judge,” said the organization’s founder and executive director Bill Leavy.
Adonis Cbounes, 20, lives in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood on the South Side, but traveled Wednesday to GWTP, 500 N Sacramento Blvd, to apply for its 12-week Shipping and Receiving program.
“The reason why I decided to apply is because I have two friends who went through the program and now they have stable jobs. I have been to Jobs Corps, but it did not help me get a job,” said Cbounes. “The jobs I had before were not consistent. At this point I want stable employment after I finish school.”
Cbounes attends Kennedy-King College in the Englewood neighborhood and ultimately hopes to become a professional singer or music manager.
“If I don’t make it as a rapper I want to at least be in the music industry doing something,” added Cbounes, whose stage name is “Rocky.”
Dionne Hubbard’s area of focus is management.
“I work as a bus boy at a restaurant for the time being but that’s not where I plan on staying forever,” said the 28-year-old Austin resident. “I would be disappointed if I am not accepted into the program here, because I have heard good things about it and I know it could help me get to where I want to go.”
In August, Nancy Coleman and Edward Chatman both graduated from the program and now volunteer as program recruiters for the organization.
After going unemployed for two years, Coleman, a 51-year-old West Garfield Park resident, said she decided to enroll in the program to get some added job skills.
“Thanks to the [shipping and receiving] program, I am a certified forklift driver and I received the same training UPS and Fedex employees got when they were hired,” said Coleman.
Chatman said he moved to Chicago from Wisconsin to assist his mother, who was ill and is also a graduate of the Woodwork program at GWTP.
“My mom (Vicky Chatman) graduated from the program in 2004 and she suggested I apply for the program after seeing me struggle to find a job,” recalled Chatman, a 28-year-old North Lawndale resident. “I owe a lot to this program, because it provided me with valuable job skills that I know will carry me far in life.”
But besides the woodwork and shipping and receiving programs, GWTP also runs West Town Academy, an alternative high school for young adults between 17 and 21 years old. In the last two years 190 students graduated and received their high school diplomas, according to Kent Nolen, the school’s director.
One student, Desmond Ewing, 19, said he dropped out of high school when he was 17 and did so because he was on the verge of getting kicked out for poor attendance. The North Lawndale resident said he will be graduating from West Town in 2016 and plans to go to barber college.
“I didn’t feel I was learning anything anyway at my old high school. I was going to school everyday to hang with my friends,” said Ewing. “A year later I realized I made a mistake. That’s when I decided to get back into school.”
Another student, Justin Harris, said he dropped out of Team Englewood High School on the South Side after missing too many days from school. The 19-year-old, who lives in the West Englewood neighborhood, said he missed a lot of days because he had to stay home and help his mother take care of his little brother.
“My mother had a baby and needed help getting around the house and no one was available but me,” explained Harris. “My dad had to go to work and my other siblings had to go to school. I sacrificed my education to help my mother and I would do it again if she needed me.”
Unlike other alternative high schools, where armed security guards walk the hallways, West Town does not use security guards or metal detectors.
“That’s not our philosophy here. We don’t want to react to conflict we try to resolve any conflicts before it escalates into something worse,” said Nolen, a former Chicago Public Schools principal.
One thing that concerns Nolen, Levy and other administrators at GWTP is the pending state budget, which has not yet been finalized by the governor and General Assembly. Collectively, Linda Thomas, director of client services; Juliann Salinas, assistant director; and Robert Fittin, training program director, said elected officials are out of touch with reality and their internal differences with each other is hurting families who are already in crisis.
“I think [Gov. Bruce] Rauner does not have a clue how his cuts are affecting having social service agencies and low-income households,” said Salinas.
Fittin suggested that without a state budget in place soon, the organization could be forced to make some hard choices.
“I don’t know exactly what those decisions would be, but I’m sure it would include laying off staff or reducing services we offer,” Fittin said. “Either way you look at it, there’s no upside to it.”
Thomas, who has worked at the organization for over 20 years, said she is praying for a miracle.
“Only God can fix this mess caused by a group of people who have no idea what it is like to go hungry,” she said.
Still, Leavy said he is optimistic that the organization could survive any further cuts from Springfield.
“You heard all the stories from our participants. And there are many more success stories West Town has created, but without funding it will be hard to continue our mission to build a community-based response to expanding [free] educational and economic opportunities for disadvantaged residents,” he said.”