NORTH LAWNDALE — Growing up in North Lawndale, Brion Williams, 19, faced more than his fair share of challenges. Raised by a single mother, the only father figures he had were his older cousin and his grandfather.
“I had a grandad and when he died, and I was like around fifth grade. … That was the only person I really went to, that really understood me,” Williams said. “Living in North Lawndale, sometimes I feel like we don’t really love each other enough. “
Years later, Williams lost his cousin to gun violence. But he didn’t let the trauma of his circumstances stop him from reaching his greatest potential.
He credits his mother with bringing him the support he needed when she started working at the social services agency UCAN five years ago, and enrolled him in the organization’s mentorship program for young men, Project Visible Man. From there, Williams flourished.
“It’s like a big family thing,” he said. “It made me feel important. … It just made me feel like I’m recognized as a person.”
That recognition continued on Thursday when Williams was one of five young people presented a Youth Leadership Award at UCAN’s annual fundraising banquet.
The banquet saw over 400 donors, community partners, public officials and UCAN staff salute the excellence of the awardees, while also building the financial capacity of UCAN’s education and youth programs. Also present were dozens of alums from UCAN’s programs for healing trauma, workforce development, violence prevention and family services.
The $5,000 scholarship will help Williams attend the City Colleges of Chicago, where he wants to learn to be an entrepreneur in the style of Bill Gates. But in his acceptance speech, he said he wants his accomplishments to be a force for good in the community that raised him.
“That’s where my slogan ‘Everybody Eats’ comes from. If I make it, it ain’t just me making it — everybody gonna make it. Everybody got to see that change,” he said, later adding that he wants to give young people in Lawndale hope. “Kids who suffer trauma can become our future leaders.”
Each award recipient carries a profound story of immeasurable hardship, personal transformation and endless resilience. The winners have turned trauma into strength, and wear the hurdles to their successes as a badge of honor.
“Even if you’re all alone, there is always something better ahead. It’s up to you to chase your dream,” said award recipient Evelyn Mondragon.
Growing up with absentee parents, Mondragon left her home in Englewood at 16 and risked homelessness before connecting with a therapist at UCAN. Her scholarship will help her achieve her dream of attending Kennedy King College to pursue the culinary arts and one day own her own restaurant.
“I turned my whole life around,” said Mondragon. “And I am strong.”
Fleeing the instability of Sudan in search of better opportunity, Gay Dut’s family emigrated to the United States when he was 5. After witnessing the civil war in his birthplace, Dut wants to one day return to Sudan to use the computer engineering skills he is developing at UIC to help rebuild his homeland after years of strife.
“That commitment kept me moving forward, kept me in school,” he said at the ceremony. “Kept me investing in my future and led me to the success I have today.”
Likewise, Jakarie Gates says his purpose is to help those who come after him to have even more opportunities than he has had. “My motivation to push forward is to motivate kids just like me, who don’t think they’re good enough to be the next Jay Z or the next Michael Jordan,” he said upon accepting his award.
UCAN’s 2019 John E. Rooney Dynamic Scholar, Jamya Crayton, suffered the loss of her father at a young age.
But through her own resourcefulness, she sought out positive opportunities that have helped her make her mark. She is a member of UCAN’s Youth Peace Council, and building on her role as president of the Chicago chapter of the Health Occupational Student Association, she plans to pursue medicine and become a family physician.
Crayton was awarded the biggest scholarship of the night, $10,000 to pursue her education. The rest of the winners received $5,000.
“I am living proof that you can come from Chicago with a low socioeconomic status and still change the world,” she said.
The event also honored BMO Financial Group CEO Dave Casper by awarding him the annual John D. Nichols Impact Award. The award commemorates the Nichols family’s philanthropic contributions to underprivileged youth and to North Lawndale in particular, where their support was instrumental to the redevelopment of Homan Square.
“It was the John Nichols Impact Award because John focused on North Lawndale and what he could do for the community,” said Tom Vanden Berk, CEO emeritus of UCAN and founder of the Nichols Impact Award. “So his idea was not just to throw money at it, but it was to give his heart and his soul.”
Donations at the ceremony added more than $150,000 to the pool of funds raised for the event in advance. But upon accepting the Nichols Impact Award, Casper gave a surprise donation reflecting the spirit of youth leaders honored at the ceremony.
“We had an impromptu meeting of our BMO colleagues here today, inspired by the young, soon-to-be-famous future philosopher Brion — everybody eats,” said Casper. “BMO is happy to add $25,000 additionally.”
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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