ENGLEWOOD — Michelle Rashad once dreamt of leaving Englewood and never looking back.
But youth programs that taught her about her neighborhood, its rich history and its relationship with the city “kept her imagination alive,” she said. Soon, she started thinking about what she could do to help and how she could be involved in leading the neighborhood forward.
She hasn’t looked back since.
Today, Rashad is the executive director of Imagine Englewood If, a nonprofit organization that strengthens and empowers the Greater Englewood area through its youth.
The South Side organization got a big boost with about $150,000 from Astound Broadband and PepsiCo’s Pathways to Readiness and Empowerment Program — a five-year, $5 million initiative to boost access to careers for Black and Hispanic youth on the South and West sides. The money will be used to expand their Growing Citizen Leaders program for local youth.
Rashad said she hopes Imagine Englewood If’s programs inspire the young people in the neighborhood to be the change they want to see, just like the programs did for her.
“In the nonprofit world, we’re all hands on deck to create as many spaces for our young people to be off the street and engaged in enriching experiences and opportunities that will create a brighter future,” Rashad said.
“With the help of PepsiCo and other organizations that support our work, we’re able to take the resources and funding that’s given to us and feed it to our young people so that they can support the goals and dreams that they have.”
In previous years, Imagine Englewood If has brought on eight young people in the community to work with their summer camps, Rashad said. This summer, more than 20 youth are involved in three tracks through their Growing Citizens Leaders program.
In addition to the summer camp programs, the organization now has peace interns and a Saturday Academy.
Saturday Academy students are taught entrepreneurial skills and given $500 in seed money to launch a business by the end of the summer because “young people have the power to be the business owners in our community,” Rashad said
Peace interns are creating an awareness campaign about the use of fentanyl, a highly addictive drug, in Englewood and how it is connected to community violence, Rashad said.
Led by Heavy Crownz, a local community artist, students are watching documentaries and listening to music to “understand the effect of drug usage in our community,” Rashad said.
Pharmacists and nurses will visit the program this summer to share their experiences, Rashad said. Youth will hear from survivors of substance abuse and family members who’ve lost loved ones to “get a complete idea of how fentanyl affects the brain, bodies and families of someone facing abuse,” Rashad said.
It had always been a dream to develop programs that would nurture youth in all directions, Rashad said. Now they’re finally doing it.
“Outside of the camp mentors, the peace interns and the Saturday Academy were just ideas,” Rashad said. ”With support from PepsiCo PREP, we were able to turn those ideas into real programming that the young people are enjoying.”
In the years to come, the goal is to offer more programming and engage with more youth in Englewood, Rashad said. They hope to acquire the shuttered Harper High School and transform it into a place that hosts year-round programming, Rashad said.
Maybe one day they can double or triple the number of youth they empower, Rashad said.
“Investment from a corporation like PepsiCo has been so instrumental and meaningful in creating a new path and understanding how this work can be supported,” Rashad said. “I appreciate PepsiCo for opening that door. Maybe we can open some of the windows and knock down some more doors to reimagine how we are investing in our young people who are the future.
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