When Sherrie Nelson, 26, revs up her 25 second graders in her By The Hand Club (BTHC) after school program classroom, it’s with the enthusiasm of a high school cheerleader working the crowd, prior to the start of the big game.
“Whose house is this,” she shouts.
“This is God’s house,” shout back the kids who are only a snapshot of the goal-oriented programming that started in 2001with 16 children from Cabrini-Green, and now encompasses 1,180 kids, first grade through college, from the neighborhoods of Cabrini-Green, Altgeld-Murray, Austin and Englewood.
For Nelson, being the BTHC 2nd grade team leader is a good fit.
In 2003, at age 13, she resembled them, a quiet child ready to jump in and emotionally and academically thrive in a safe space, tucked away from the streets after school.
“Me and my family moved to Cabrini in 1999, so I was 9 and my Mom kept us in the house all the time because of the things that were going on in the neighborhood,” says Nelson, who credits this programming for dramatically improving her reading and writing skills.
Initially, it was through BTHC’s Sidewalk Sunday School outreach programming that Nelson joined in the city wide faith-based initiative that was founded by Donnita Travis, its executive director.
“Here, on these two corners in the Austin community, in two buildings [415 and 416 Laramie] we are serving about 500 kids from five (Chicago public) schools,” Travis says.
To participate in BTHC, she says the kids have to be “enrolled in one of those five schools, and we rely on principals from those neighborhood schools to identify and refer kids who are in critical need of intervention,” says Travis. “We are working closely with schools, principals and parents to make sure that students who are most likely to drop out of school, don’t.”
Instead, the aim is for BTHC kids to graduate from high school, then go on to college and start a career.
Like Nelson, Toi Dickson, whose four sons, age 15, 12, 9 and 8, are in the BTHC program, has a back story that begins at Cabrini Green’s Building No. 714, “The Whites,” and gets worse when the single parent household was residing in its row houses.
In an effort to protect her children, Dickson says she and her siblings were never allowed to leave the home, or their mother’s side.
In 1997, Dickson’s mother relocated them to Austin, where she enrolled her daughter in the community’s arts enrichment programming, especially vocal training.
“Now, singing is how I find peace,” says Dickson, the BTHC choir director and a sixth grade team leader.
When Dickson herself became a mother, she instinctively began channeling that over-protective approach, and her boys did not like it.
In 2013, when Travis brought BTHC to Austin, Dickson made sure her boys were recommended for the child and parent-centered afterschool programming.
“You can’t stop the shooting. You can’t stop the rape. The murder. And, the peer pressure is real. You can’t stop any of that. But, you can figure out how to send your children to the By The Hand Club,” says Dickson. “Coming here after school has given my sons an outlet where they can run and play in a place where they feel safe to just live and be free.”