Chris Thomas, the founder of YourPassion1st. | Provided

YourPassion1st, an Oak Park-based youth mentoring nonprofit, is launching a new after school mentoring program that will provide mental health support while teaching students the skills they would need to make their career goals a reality.

The program is an extension of the nonprofit’s existing mentoring programs and mental health workshops. The program is launching at Youth Connection Charter School’s Austin campus, at 4909 W. Division St., but organizers hope to expand it to other West Side public and charter schools. YourPassion1st founder Chris Thomas said that it was important for them to address teens’ mental health.

YourPassion1st organizes workshops and events designed to help young people succeed in the arts, music, sports and culinary fields. Thomas said that the after school mentoring program builds on their Youth Ambassador program, which gives young people a chance to develop and pitch projects. In addition to mentoring and career advice, the young people get help and support from therapists.

“We all go through mental health challenges, so our program has the base framework of mental health,” Thomas said.

He added that young people have been stressed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when the restrictions were more stringent and students were socially isolated and couldn’t meet with their mentors. 

“It’s an after school program, to really mentor those young adults, to give them a safe space, to make them turn a thing they love into a paycheck,” Thomas said. “A lot of young adults, especially in high school, are challenged with [turning] doing what they love, what they’re passionate about, into a career. We help them to turn those challenges and weaknesses into strengths.”

The program will kick off in either the third or fourth week of January, running on Tuesdays and Thursdays, as well as some Saturdays, for 32 weeks.

YourPassion1st is working with Light of Loving Kindness, a Chicago area nonprofit that, according to its website, treats stress and trauma “through Holistic Integrative Solutions and mindfulness-based Interventions,” specifically focusing on lower-income, underserved communities.

The program will pair two mental health and career coaches with 10 students. Thomas said one of those coaches, Shanna Williams, is a therapist and a musician who performs as Queen Prophecy. Williams sits on YourPassion1st’s advisory board.

The program is free to the students, but it costs around $30,000 to operate. Thomas said that the funding came through several grants, including the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant.

For more information about YourPassion1st, visit

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...