A tutoring program started by Carol Kelly, an Oak Parker and a Juvenile Court judge, is in danger of shutting down after Chicago Public School officials announced it will close Grant Community Academy, where the tutoring is based.
But Cook County Circuit Judge Kelly, who started the program three years ago for third-graders, is determined to find it another home.
Kelly, 53, calls education her number one priority. “I don’t have any honor students in my courtroom,” she said about the delinquent teens who regularly appear before her. “I have the youths who are in high school and can’t read.”
Kelly started a weekly after-school tutoring program because she wanted the West Side community to see “that we are not just out there to lock their kids up. We are really there to try to help them.”
According to Kelly, it is cheaper for communities to provide recreational and rehabilitation services for youths now than to deal with the consequences of juvenile delinquency later.
“It’s a lot easier to put the money into a tutoring program so youths can read than have them not complete high school, not have a job and not pay taxes,” she said. “Instead, we are paying for them to be incarcerated, and that’s a huge portion of our economy. You have to convince the entire community that it affects all of us in the long run.”
Kelly said this year has been the most successful for her tutoring program. Starting with just one tutor three years ago, Kelly now has 40 volunteer tutors to teach 40 young students. Most tutors are probation officers, but volunteer tutors come from almost every department at Cook County Juvenile Court, she said.
At the end of every school year, Kelly brings the students to Juvenile Court for a day. “[We] show them that they don’t have to come here as a delinquent,” she said. “They can come back here later as a lawyer, probation officer, judge, clerk or sheriff if they go to school.”
Probation Officer Lisa Margolies said it’s apparent from meeting Kelly how much she cares about the youths, their education and their safety.
“She saw one [teen who is on probation] at a basketball game, and she stopped to talk to him,” Margolies said. “She didn’t have to do that. She’s a real person with real feelings.”
Helping others runs in the Kelly family. In 2000, her daughter Meaghan, then 12, was inspired by an Oprah Winfrey television show about children who do charitable work. So Meaghan started a basketball program for children living in Chicago’s public housing developments. After raising $1,500, she created “Hoop Stars” and asked her mother to help.
“We both have the same view of the world,” said Meaghan Kelly, now 16 and a student at Fenwick.”We know we are fortunate and need to help those less fortunate than us. They deserve just as good of a life as we’ve had.”
“She’s very dedicated,” Meaghan Kelly said of her mother. “She never misses a day [helping youths] no matter how busy she is. She always finds time to come [to events].
“I admire her love for all the youths. She loves them just as much as she loves me,” Meaghan said.
And young people seem to love Kelly, too. According to her daughter, they run up to the judge and hug her whenever she walks in. “They are always so excited to see her,” Meaghan said.
Kelly said because of the high crime rate in the Lawndale community, the area where most youths who appear before Kelly live, she wants to expand Hoop Stars there to keep youths busy after school and prevent them from getting into trouble.
“They are engaged in something positive all night,” she said of the basketball program. “It is also good that they go home tired. Playing basketball is just the hook to get youths off the streets. Once they are there, they take part in fund-raising, community work, anger management counseling, gang and drug prevention and tutoring.”
Hoop Stars is free, and youths are given uniforms, T-shirts and shoes donated by athletic gear company Nike.
“What every community needs are after school activities for the kids to do and be a part of,” Kelly said. “My dream is to build a beautiful basketball facility for these kids in their community instead of pouring all of our money into prisons.”
Colleagues describe Kelly as a nonstop worker. She even spends her two-week summer vacation helping out at a River Forest day camp.
“I have a lot of respect for Judge Kelly in terms of her work ethic and values. She’s exceptional,” said Michael Rohan, the director of Cook County Juvenile Court’s probation department.
Kelly said she knows the work she is doing is important because she sees the difference it makes in children’s lives.
“I have a parole officer in my court right now who came through here as a juvenile [delinquent]. Some [former delinquents] come back just to tell me how well they are doing. Occasionally I get a positive letter from somebody, and that keeps me going
Besides Meaghan, Kelly has an older son who is a college freshman and a 7-year-old foster daughter. Kelly has been a judge since 1992 and at Juvenile Court since 1993. She has lived in Oak Park on and off since 1973.
“Being a judge in Juvenile Court isn’t a job I requested or even wanted,” she said. “But it’s now a place I don’t want to leave.
“When I went to college, my goal was to be a social worker,” she said. “I went to law school because I thought I’d be in a better position to help people if I was in a more powerful position, a position where I could make some changes that could really affect a lot of people. I think that this is what I do now. My life has come full circle, and I think this is exactly where I was meant to be. It’s amazing how life works.”