Mentor Amber Vaughn, left, helps Jabri with writing sentences and Amyah with math during a tutoring session at Kidz Express in Austin. (David Pierini/staff photographer)

At age 10, as he shot hoops with friends at a local park on the West Side of Chicago, Marco Dodd heard the pied piping of an older friend who led him and his group to a community youth center, Kidz Express, the organization he, now at age 22, is championing.

As its senior manager of mentors, Dodd says he oversees the nonprofit’s job skills programming — a successful peer-to-peer mentoring approach. In the program, teens from the neighborhood who have grown up in the program, either volunteer, or as a Kidz Express staffer, interact with current participants between the ages of six and 13.

Ten year old Armani McClay is one of them. Three years ago she landed here when her after school programming disappeared.

“Kidz Express was real fun, and better than my other after school program,” says the fifth grader who in the future hopes to be a first responder. “We did more stuff here, stayed longer, and did educational stuff, too, because during tutoring time we do reading, we do math, and other stuff to get us ready for the next grade in school.”

Likewise, Julissa Frazier, an 8th grader who is on track to be a Kidz Express mentor when she turns 14, is another young girl who found this program.

“It wasn’t that good in the streets, so I came here to keep myself busy,” she says. “I play with the kids, have fun and do that kind of thing.”

When he was seven, Devon Cook, now a part-time mentor, says he discovered that being bookish didn’t sit well with the kids hanging out on his corner, so he headed to Kidz Express to find a place to read. Now 20, he’s back helping the local kids understand that college can be in their futures, too.

“The Austin area has its ups and its downs, and sometimes when you walk on the sidewalk and see all the drug dealers on the corner, because of Kidz Express, I just learned to walk past it, because I knew I was heading to a place where I would be safe,” says Cook, now a junior at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

And, all that is the point of this “crazy program for kids on the West Side of Chicago,” says Doug Low, executive director of the nonprofit that formed in Oak Park and Austin over a decade ago, as a dream to create a bridge between Austin and Oak Park.

In 2005, it officially became a brick and mortar space that offers free, open enrollment to about 55 local youth, 45 weeks a year.

“What do we do here, well, what I say is that we help kids make better decisions when faced with the difficulties of South Austin,” says Low. Right now he is working to expand the program to serve 200 kids a day in a new location with additional social services.

“When kids come here, they know that we want to help them,” says Dodd. “We want to be there when they need help from somebody, and we want to be more than just a mentor, because we learn as much from the kids as they learn from us.”

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Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....

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