Outside the Tribune Tower a few weeks ago, the company I work for held a day-long event to raise money for the Off the Street Club – an amazing after-school program and refuge for children living in Chicago’s dangerous West Garfield Park neighborhood, just a few miles west of Oak Park. At the event, we had 100 life-sized cutouts of kids from the club set up on a mock street. We encouraged passersby to come over and literally take a kid off the street for a small donation. A sadly ironic postscript to the day is that at the exact time we were wrapping up the event – an event that’s purpose was to keep kids safe after school – just a few miles away, 16-year-old Chicago honor student Derrion Albert was beaten to death outside of Fenger High School.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder came to town a week later and met with some Chicago Public Schools students. After their meeting, Duncan said the students told him they are trying to do the right thing, but that they need help. They need mentors and after-school programs. That is exactly what the Off the Street Club provides for the kids of West Garfield: mentors, tutors, a library, computers, performing arts, arts and crafts, an athletic center, a girl’s center, a summer camp, field trips to cultural locations and, most important, a daily safe haven in one of the most dangerous ZIP codes in America.

Through my involvement with the club, I have learned that kids on the West Side are advised to look at the ground when walking to and from school to avoid eye contact with the gang-bangers and drug dealers they encounter every day. At a recent gathering of about 75 kids at the club, a staff member asked the group how many had a family member who had been a victim of gun violence. Every child in the room raised their hand. It isn’t difficult to see why it is so important to keep these kids off the streets.

Fundraising isn’t easy, especially in a recession. While our event at the Tribune Tower provided a good start, much more is needed to provide the club (which is 100 percent funded through private donations) with its 2010 operating budget. Because of the tough economy, our approach is to ask for small donations from a lot of people. A new Web site, offthestreetclub.org, is the collection plate. Click on a 3-D animated kid and place him or her into the club for an affordable $10 donation. Imagine how many kids could be helped if we can meet our fundraising goal of $10 donations from 100,000 people.

Village residents are well aware that many of the problems of the city’s West Side often manifest in Oak Park, and youth violence is no exception. There is no better investment of your money than with an organization whose mission is to keep kids off the street by giving them a refuge where, as the club’s motto says, “hope has a home.”

Laurie Nations, an Oak Park resident since 1996, is a volunteer for the Off the Street Club in West Garfield Park and works for a Chicago advertising agency.

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