Austin nonprofit builds community with peer mentors

Kidz Express reinforces positive peer-to-peer relationships through structured activities

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By Bonni McKeown

It makes a lot of sense. The best mentors for inner city youngsters dealing with poverty, violence, family problems, gangs and trauma are slightly older kids who are beating the odds in these same situations. Social workers call this theory "cross age peer mentoring."  

But that theory is everyday reality for Kidz Express, an afterschool program headquartered in a closed school building at 5221 W. Congress Parkway in Austin. More than 50 young people attend, ages 5 to 18, nearly all from a six to eight block radius. Young teens, 12 to 14, get paid to help clean the building and youth over 14 are paid as mentors.

Jada Toy, 17, began coming to Kidz Express at age 7 and now leads the 5- to 7-year-olds.  

"I was always the bad kid myself," Toy said. "Now I'm here telling kids to finish their homework before they can get on the computer. It's an important job. It's all I think about when I wake up each morning." 

Kidz Express started over 20 years ago, when co-founders Duane Ehresman and Warren King of Oak Park alerted Doug Low, a friend versed in social work.

Wanting to help West Side youth, the men arranged to bus them across the city line to Good Shepherd Lutheran Church for afterschool activities. Low, an Army brat of Chinese-Japanese-Irish descent who had attended over a dozen different schools himself before landing in Chicago for college, found his calling. He's been executive director since the beginning.

What do you do with kids coming from backgrounds of poverty and trauma? First, find out what they need. Often, they will tell you, said Jada. Necessities after school include a snack plus exercise to work off pent-up energy and stress. Kids may not say so, but they need structure: games and activities, deadlines to finish their school work. Supervision is tight: rooms are locked when not in use for activities and youth not in the program are not allowed to loiter in or outside the building. 

Above all, the youth need people to pay attention to them. Attentive staff and mentors figure out how to motivate each individual to make the best possible life choices.  

Hiking at Starved Rock State Park has become an annual Kidz Express pilgrimage; so has camping in Wisconsin. 

Low said he wanted to establish a program rooted directly in the community. Using private donations and grants, Kidz Express bought a building at 342 S. Laramie. The  nonprofit moved to its present location in 2015 — one of very few school buildings repurposed for youth in the wake of Mayor Rahm Emmanuel's school closings.  Young people can walk to Kidz Express after school and working parents know their whereabouts.  

Partners and volunteers from Oak Park and elsewhere continue to offer unique experiences for the kids: nature walks in Garfield Park Conservatory, yoga, career mentorship, music (from hip-hop to guitar) and art. Jack and Jill Foundation sponsored a health fair this year, offering information and free examinations. 

Mentor Imani Hardy (known in the rap world as Mani Jurban) said he looks forward to a new recording studio being donated to Kidz Express by other rappers. A memorial photo of his brother, Yuri, killed in street violence, hangs in the hall. Yuri was also a mentor. 

"That was a very dark time," Imani said. "A lot of kids deal with aggression and anger. With guitar lessons and a hip-hop club, and visual arts, we show them to move that energy and express their feelings in healthier ways. A lot of them have self-esteem issues. They're afraid to try performing in front of a group. I was introverted at first. It takes time. A couple of our mentees have recorded and released their own songs."

More information ways to donate can be found at www.kidzexpress.org.

CONTACT: bonni@barrelhousebonni.com 

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