By The Hand Kids Club’s Austin location, 415 N. Laramie Ave., marked the end of Black History Month with a heavy dose of inspiration.

On Feb. 25, the organization held the last in a series of Black History Month events. It invited African-American professionals, some of whom grew up on the West Side, to talk to kids about their experiences and encourage kids to pursue their dreams.

Founded in 1997 in Cabrini-Green by the nearby Moody Church, By The Hand has become its own entity, expanding to Austin, Englewood and the Altgeld Gardens public housing development. The organization runs after-school programs that aim to help kids who are struggling in school and give them a sense of purpose. 

Sarah James, By The Hand’s senior program operations manager, told Austin Weekly News that, throughout February, the organization taught the kids about different parts of black history. Finishing up the month with something that focused on the future made sense, she said.

“We wanted the kids to learn that no matter where they are from, with great attitude, hard work and God’s help, they can do anything,” James said.

She explained that the organization reached out to possible guests through their extended networks. They tried to find guests who were from the community. In the end, a total of 17 speakers gathered at By the Hand’s Austin location.

Theodora Okiro, a director of communications for Ald. James Cappleman (46th), said that her job allowed her to pursue her passion.

“I work on bringing affordable housing and helping develop neighborhoods that need more attention,” she said. “Public affairs is my body, it’s my passion.”

Dr. Richard Benson, an emergency physician, said that the positive energy he saw in the room would get kids far.

“You guys have a lot of positive energy in here,” he said. “I see out future doctors and lawyers and teachers — it’s great.”

After the speakers talked about themselves, the kids had a chance to ask questions. One of the first questions was how much money they made.

Ifeoma Agu, a nurse who is currently working on her doctorate, gave figures that elicited impressed murmurs from the entire room.

“Sixty-thousand dollars a year out of school,” she said. “Now when I graduate with a doctor’s degree, it’s in the range of $100,000 at least.”

Agu also added that, when she worked as a traveling nurse, she got her travel expenses covered, which was a nice perk to go with her salary.

Peace Udechukwu, a therapist and a teacher, had a different response.

“Everyone here has a purpose,” she said. “God created you for a purpose, and therefore, whatever your purpose, you’re going to have money. The key [to] making millions and billions of dollars is to focus on your purpose.”

 “This is for all of you, to inspire you,” Bernadette Ballenger, a site director at By The  Hand, told the kids. “It is to raise the fire in you to be the people you want to be.”

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...