Increase the Peace youth ambassadors have been signing up Back of the Yards residents for COVID-19 vaccines. Credit: Provided

BACK OF THE YARDS — The vaccine rollout process has left many people behind, especially older people and those without reliable access to the internet.

So, a group of young people dedicated to anti-violence work on the South Side sprung into action to help neighbors snag appointments.

Outside popular grocery stores and taquerias, seven youth ambassadors from Increase the Peace‘s Youth Asset Ambassador program set up tables in busy corridors with a mission of getting neighbors vaccinated. To date, they’ve helped schedule more than 1,000 appointments as part of the Protect Chicago Plus program, said Berto Aguayo, executive director of Increase the Peace.

“Our young people know how to reach people and how to meet people where they’re at … . While people are waiting for their taco order, we are registering people for the vaccine,” he said.

The Youth Asset Ambassador program, funded by the city’s My Chi My Future initiative, offers opportunities for civic engagement to unemployed or out-of-school youths, Aguayo said. In brainstorming the initiative, organizers wanted to “leverage the social capital and tech-savviness of youth” to address the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccination efforts and violence, Aguayo said.

The program helps to address two public health issues, Aguayo said.

“We give a young person an opportunity and we help our community navigate vaccination appointments,” he said.

Even with a nominal $500 stipend for participants, the month-long initiative attracted a lot of interest, Aguayo said. Within a day of launching the application for ambassadors, Increase the Peace received more than 80 applications.

The group’s ambassadors are 18-24 years old. They have been trained to help people sign up for appointments and provide additional COVID-19-related resources. They set up sign-up stations at grocery stores, taquerias and busy areas throughout Back of the Yards. 

The ambassadors have also helped give away food at pop-up food pantries while registering people for the vaccine, Aguayo said.

Jorge Agustin helps a resident with vaccination questions as part of Increase the Peace’s Youth Asset Ambassador program.

Lifelong Back of the Yards resident Jorge Agustin said the initiative has been a “gratifying experience” to help his community that is filled with “frontline” workers.

“I’m very passionate about the neighborhood where I was born and raised here … so I’m pretty invested in the neighborhood. This was the perfect opportunity to help the community that raised me and get involved,” the 24-year-old said.

The initiative is a big first step to protecting the community from the pandemic while highlighting some of the resources available, Agustin said

In addition to helping the community navigate the barriers to COVID-19 vaccines, Mayela Quinto, 23, said this initiative was a perfect way to engage youths to get more involved in the community “to make a change.”

Quinto hopes the program attracts more youth to other Increase the Peace initiatives to reduce violence in the neighborhood.

Mayela Quinto, 23, answers a residents question near 47th Street and Damen Avenue in Back of the Yards.

“We are trying to create solutions … . We are basically the Avengers of the hood,” Quinto said.

Aguayo said the ambassador program has proven “a huge success in the vaccination front … . We are literally meeting people where they’re at.”

Back of the Yard residents want to be vaccinated, and more doses and vaccination sites are needed to meet the demand, Aguayo said.

The group’s success to date is a testament to organizing efforts from the ambassadors in coordination with a larger coalition of community stakeholders, Aguayo said.

“Organizing works, and we need to trust our communities to know what our communities need,” Aguayo said.

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.

Already subscribe? Click here to support Block Club with a tax-deductible donation.

Pilsen, Little Village and West Loop reporterrnrnmauricio@blockclubchi.orgnnPilsen, Little Village and West Loop Twitter @MauricioPena