LOT program empowers Southwest Side students through community

From issues with violence to poor attendance, the Leaders of Tomorrow program digs deep into the issues Southwest Side students are facing and don't even realize are affecting them.

"I got into a fight in the beginning of the year," said Adrian Jimenez, a LOT program participant and freshman at Kelly High School.

Students end up coming to the LOT program for many different reasons.

The Brighton Park Neighborhood Council began the program to provide trauma counseling, case management and mentorship opportunities to students at Kelly High School, Shields Middle School and Davis Elementary School.

"I thought like, ‘Oh, it's going to be boring,’” Jimenez said. “I thought it was not going to be fun. So, like, I didn't want to."

Now, eight months into the program, Jimenez said he's changed his mind about it.

"I actually quite enjoy it. We do fun stuff,” Jimenez said. "They actually taught me how to control my anger, because that's how I got into the fight."

For many students who participate, the program provides an open door, one that understands mistakes but challenges students to pick up the pieces, according to Case Manager Benjamin Mendoza.

"The types of transformations I've seen are very small. Small progress, but it's leading to something bigger,” Mendoza said. "It may not be right away, but it's something that they're working on and I know that they're putting in the effort."

The program is funded through the Cook County Justice Advisory Council.

Organizers said from 2015 to 2016 there was a 66 percent decrease in school disciplinary incidents of its participants and an 80 percent decrease of arrests.

"We focus a lot on making positive choices, a lot of our students have maybe not made some of the best choices in the past. And we try to empower them and help kind of shift their world view to let them know and kind of be aware of that they do have a lot of choices,” Lissette Guzman, a mental health counselor who is on the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, said.

Choices students like Valeria Alcaraz now realizes she has.

"They talked to me about my choices and how not coming was a choice of mine,” Alcaraz said. “And it was not a good choice for me to not come. But, when I decided to keep coming, it improved my attendance and I became a better student."

About 80 students are currently enrolled in the program. Amid the violence in the neighborhood they're surrounded in, the hope is to give these kids a chance to improve themselves and each other.

"The students really form kind of a bond and relate to each other when they start sharing stories about the different stressers, the different experiences that they've been through and it helps them feel that they're not alone,” Guzman said.

The program touts that nearly 80 percent of the students who participate have less positive attitudes toward gangs by the end of the school year.

The goal is for students to make positive changes and lead to a decrease in violence in their neighborhood.