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Chicago program unites at-risk teens and military veterans to overcome violence

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For many Chicago at-risk youth, their backyard has been compared to a “war zone.” With the number of shooting victims up 8 percent since the beginning of this year, finding a means to look beyond the enemy and accept peace can often be challenging – until now.

Meg Helder, director of program operations for the YMCA of Metro Chicago's Youth Safety and Violence Prevention program, is helping unite two distinct groups – Chicago teens affected by neighborhood violence and military veterans who fought in the nation's two most recent wars.

“Both populations have had high exposure to violence, and this program allows them to start from the beginning,” says Hedler. “Our young people are learning from the veterans about how they interact with the world; how they can turn a negative situation into a positive one.”

During the 12-week pilot Urban Warrior program, the YMCA paired kids from Little Village with military veterans, providing both parties the opportunity to share “war stories” and focus on ways to improve their physical, mental and emotional health. The program also builds a sense of direction and meaning for struggling veterans as they deal with issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, says Hedler.

The pilot program brought together 15 Chicago youth and five veterans, many of them building a strong camaraderie because of their similar background.

“Most of the veterans come from the same neighborhoods as our youth, and our kids are surprised to hear this. It helps them identify with [the veterans],” said Hedler.

The group met every Saturday for three hours, participating in peace circles, trust-building exercises, and fun activities. The Little Village group graduated on July 21. Hedler says they will continue to keep the members of the group engaged, through softball leagues and other community activities.

Work is underway to quickly expand the program to other struggling Chicago neighborhoods, like South Chicago, West Lawn, Logan Square, and Pilsen, according to Hedler. They have begun recruiting for their Urban Warrior program in South Chicago, which they intend to launch this fall.