READI Program for at Risk Youth in North Lawndale

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Jose Wilson is the Director of Workforce Programs and Clinical Systems in the North Lawndale Employment Network, within the Rapid Employment and Development Initiative (READI) program. This is a program for at-risk emerging adults on the South Side of Chicago. Currently, the program serves four neighborhoods: Englewood, Austin, West Garfield Park, and North Lawndale. 

The initiative is managed by the Heartland Alliance along with help from other philanthropic groups and agencies. The program receives direct assistance from the Crime and Poverty Labs of the University of Chicago by having their data examiners running the numbers provided by both respective labs to help identify victim and victimizer similarly.

The range in age of the participants of the READI program are 18 and older, but usually the demographic is 18-24. The initiative is focused on enrolling young adults who are at risk of either being victimized by crime or getting directly involved. Most of these young men have lost loved ones, so it is a challenge for them to open up to others within the program, especially during the weekly therapy sessions. The program acts as a guidance system as well as a rehabilitative one. 

The outreach staff seeks out potential participants. However, if they were referred by the Urban Lab, a partner within the READI Program, then they are already admitted into the initiative. The goal is to identify the at-risk individuals, regardless of age, and each participant has 18 months in READI, of immediate employment, cognitive behavior therapy, and professional development. After the 18 months are done, there is a follow-up of an additional 6 months of support and help form the staff.   

The treatments provided by READI, along with the cognitive behavior therapy and professional development offered is a combination that has been proven to work in other neighborhoods in the country with this level of crime and or poverty.

There are some participants that are in different stages within the initiative. Each participant has certain criteria that must be met in order to advance. The first criteria is focused on safety since they are from an environment where violence is prevalent. The coordinators assist by teaching de-escalation skills and peace circles for conflict management among individuals.

There are even instances of some of the READI youth being shot at while in the program. Over half of them have lost a family member or friend due to the violence. Fortunately, the READI program offers counsel in mental health issues as they relate to these types of anxieties.

Stage two of READI is connections. Participants pinpoint what they desire to do in life. Stage three of the program is exploration. At this stage, participants are no longer shuttled to and from their home to their respective workplaces by the coaches. Participants are supposed to be in the process of looking for school or work. Each stage has an increasing requirement that needs to be met before moving on to the next stage.

The coaches that oversee and administer this incorporation of strategies to 10-15 individuals of the READI program must ideally have clinical experience. Workers also need to have relevant educational experience because they are dealing with young men who are in the process of change, or who are in the pre-contemplation stage of change but are not committed yet, albeit they are considering turning over a new leaf.

Some get stuck on the fence, but at least they are showing up every day. Over 75 percent of the participants show up daily. Attendance is defined as once or twice a week, with a goal to be there five times a week.

The therapy sessions are to evaluate the risks and behaviors that are inhibiting them from being successful and eliminating the unhealthy actions that place them at risk. This helps to enforce better actions and setting specific goals for them to follow, such as parenting, financial wellness, etcetera.

A few have been incarcerated while in the program, usually a parole violation or a new charge, but once they are free they can continue for the amount of time they have remaining. Once the 18 months are done the ideal expectation for the individual is to have a full-time job or unsubsidized work.

Written By Juan Ayala


The Chicago Tribune: In hopes of stopping [the] bloodshed, a multimillion-dollar effort is providing jobs, therapy to city’s most violent

Top Image Courtesy of FTTUB’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License

Featured Image Courtesy of pontla’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License


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