In Oak Park’s neighbor community of Austin is an intriguing after school/summer program for kids called Kidz Express (KE). It has strong Oak Park connections, growing out of the vision of two Oak Parkers and from its original roots in two Oak Park churches. 

Now 22 years old, KE’s two Oak Park founders, Duane Ehresman and Warren King, wanted to offer activities to inner-city children that build self-confidence and expose them to the larger world around them — while bridging the gap between Austin and Oak Park.

Kidz Express deliberately blurs traditional categories. It’s an after-school program for kids 5-13 that’s also a peer mentoring program and a job training program for neighborhood youth ages 14 to 28 .

If you visit KE at its site, a former elementary school at 5221 W. Congress Pkwy., what you see are kids and young people. The young people are the mentors. The kids are, in the KE language, mentees. Each mentee has one primary mentor. You may also see an older man roaming the building. That would be Doug Low, who is the executive director but who could also and more accurately be termed the “major domo” of KE. If we think of KE as an extended household — which it is in many ways — Doug has a rich and detailed knowledge of all its inhabitants, its routines, its finances, and its daily requirements. Doug has been major domo-ing KE for 20 years.

You might also see, depending on the day you visit, adults talking with kids. These are volunteers. They come in various sizes, shapes, genders and color. One example: a pair of Oak Park women is currently inducting a group of the youngest kids (they’re called Shorties) into the natural world. On Columbus Day last fall, they took eight KE kids to the Garfield Park Conservatory for three hours of glorious play and exploration. A second example: Eight alumni of Bradley University meet with the kids every two weeks. They don’t preach, teach or coach; they’re simply models of adult human beings who like to talk with kids.

As an extended healthy household, KE clearly has holding power, a kind of inter-human gravity field that draws kids and young people in. Kids come to KE and keep coming back because it’s a safe place, a play space, a source of homework help, a site for games both fun and instructive, a portal to places and activities beyond the boundaries of Austin (like the Garfield Park Conservatory, which none of the eight kids had ever visited before). 

The average kid has been involved with KE for over five years. Over 50 kids come about 95% of the time. For its mentors, KE is a portal into aspects of adult life like holding a job, earning a pay check, and meeting responsibilities — 25 of the 28 current mentors participated in KE as kids, which is not surprising given KE’s holding power. The average mentor has been involved for 10 years. Their mentors are positive role models because they have made good choices under the same circumstances the children face every day and help the kids overcome many of the same challenges they were confronted with growing up. 

There’s a test that measures an individual’s Sense of Belonging — 64% of KE’s kids have a strong sense of belonging, which is some 20 percentage points higher than in other after-school programs.

Kidz Express provides critical support and services for the South Austin Community to help its kids make better choices. If you are interested in learning more about Kidz Express or volunteering, give Doug Low a call at 312-730-2670.

And you can go to their website at www.kidzexpress.org if you would like to donate online. If you prefer to send a check, send it to: Kidz Express, 5221 W. Congress Pkwy., Chicago, IL 60644.

Brandon Johnson, Anthony Clark, Rev. Kathy Nolte, Duane Ehresman, Paul Goyette, Carolyn Goldbeck, Tim Thomas, Laura Maychruk, Hilda Schlatter, Paul Sakol, Robert Althouse, June Tanoue, Zerlina Smith, Bonni McKewon, Steve Krasinsky, Lisa Pintado-Vertner, Julie Samuels, Ron Baiman, Ralph Lee, John Duffy

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