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Back of the Yards

Back Of The Yards Youth Program Still Finding Ways To Mentor Youth, Prevent Violence After 4 Years Of Work

The Yards Youth Initiative, a program that offers mentorship to Back of the Yards teenagers and young adults, is celebrating four years.

Michael Fedoruk (far right) poses with participants of The Yards Youth Initiative.
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BACK OF THE YARDS — The pandemic forced Michael Fedoruk to scale back some of his mentoring work at The Yards Youth Initiative — but the group is still finding ways to connect with teens and youth adults.

Created by Fedoruk and other community members in 2017, The Yards program pairs area youth, ages 13-24, with adult mentors for various activities — like culinary classes, sports leagues and leadership workshops — as they look for solutions to gun violence in the Southwest Side neighborhood.

It’s been a slow process to build trust with young people in an area plagued by gang violence — and organizers had to restart that process after the pandemic interrupted The Yards’ usual activities, Fedoruk said.

Despite the struggles, the work is worth it, Fedoruk said.

“We live in a section of the city where there are some issues with gangs and some of the things like that,” Fedoruk said. “Some of my colleagues, some of the parents and some of the other coaches and youth workers in the neighborhood … what we kind of saw was, kids don’t feel safe at the parks. It’s kind of a little bit of a dead zone for some of the programming running for kids. And so we’ve tried to be able to offer that.”

The Yards Youth Initiative was created after a shooting on the corner of 48th Street and Damen Avenue. Local teachers, pastors, organizers, parents and youth wanted to provide a safe place for teenagers and young adults.

“That first year was kind of tough, but after we got a little bit of a track record, people, especially people from the community and neighborhood, and some of the young adults that have done a year or two with us, they’re the ones that are kind of coming and giving back,” Fedoruk said. “We’re still kind of young, but, hopefully, we’ll be able to carry it with the next couple years.”

Credit: Provided
Participants of The Yards Youth Initiative play a game of basketball.

Before The Yards came along, kids had once gathered at the social center for St. Michael the Archangel Church, 4825 S. Damen Ave. It was closed due to a lack of adult supervision.

But The Yards transformed the space and is now based out of the church, allowing teens and young adults to once again gather there.

Still, the group holds events throughout the neighborhood as organizers continue their work to stop violence and connect with youth throughout the area.

“The gangs are still an issue,” Fedoruk said. “The invisible lines are still there.

“… Kids are — they want to play, they want to be connected, and we see that. But they’re still just a little bit isolated with … those old boundaries that we haven’t broken down yet.” 

Credit: Provided
Participants of The Yards Youth Initiative pose together.

Fedoruk said the COVID-19 pandemic made addressing these issues even more difficult since the program’s members couldn’t meet regularly and events had to be limited.

Virtual options, like online yoga classes and check-ins, were used to keep youth engaged and connected to the program.

It wasn’t until this spring that The Yards’ organizers were able to reopen. They made calls to to schools and organizations for meeting places and to youth for program participation. Its programs are now back.

Credit: Provided
Participants of The Yards Youth Initiative convene during a sports event.

To Fedoruk, being part of The Yards Youth Initiative has been a deeply rewarding experience, especially seeing the way it’s progressed since 2017. Fedoruk, who grew up in the Edison Park area, said being able to build meaningful relationships throughout Chicago and create positive changes in the lives of young people are what he’s always wanted to do. 

Fedoruk’s mother, Jodi Fedoruk, said service has always been her son’s focus. She said her son worked with volunteer organizations throughout college and did service work for two years in Bolivia.

“He felt like he had a good childhood and he had good experiences growing up,” she said. “Really what he’s done is taken what he had here in this little community that we live in, and taken it to just a little higher level, and brought it to an area that just never had that experience, hasn’t had that experience for a long time.”

Now, Fedoruk is thinking of where The Yards can be taken in the future. With The Yards’ programs back on and with four years of experience, Fedoruk thinks similar initiatives can be started throughout the city. 

“I think we’ve kind of got a little bit of a manual here,” he said. “We can establish this in other parts of Back of the Yards or even we can take it to some other neighborhoods. We’ve kind of got an instruction for how to you know start something like this, how to start some sort of community building initiative for kids here.”

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