Professors receive grant to combat youth exposure to violence
The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention recently awarded Psychology Professor Maryse Richards and her research team a million dollar grant to fund a study that could change the lives of Chicago area youth.
Along with the School of Social Work Professor Katherine Tyson-McCrea and the Empowering Counseling Program staff, Dr. Richards and researchers in the Risk and Resilience Lab have begun a four year project aiming to help very high-risk, impoverished youth limit, and cope with, their exposure to community violence.
“We’ve found that kids report it as a huge stressor in their lives,” Dr. Richards said.
According to Dr. Richards, this exposure and stress can lead to problem behaviors, gang involvement, and a diminished quality of life, and it disproportionately affects African-American and Latino youth.
Dr. Richards is currently collaborating with Ceasefire, a Chicago based violence prevention program, and several other community organizations to test a cross-age peer mentoring program in Englewood, one of the city’s most violent neighborhoods. The program pairs high school students with younger kids who are at risk.
The goal is to train the youth to become mentors of younger children and teenagers within their community. The high school students chosen for the program receive extensive training and are paired with elementary and middle-school youth who share common interests.
“Mentoring is a particularly powerful tool,” Dr. Richards said. “It has a whole slew of positive outcomes.”
However, many programs use adult mentors, which has its setbacks.
“The problem with adults who are outside of the community is that they don’t connect to their mentees on a cultural level, and they often can’t fully commit to the program due to other responsibilities,” Dr. Richards said.
Dr. Richards said the students who have participated so far have shown a strong desire to make a difference. As quoted from Allison Shimer’s Provost Fellowship project:
"I don’t want them to feel like I’m someone else who comes into their life and disappears,” a male mentor said. “I want to be there for them to know that they can pick up a phone and call me and I’d come and meet them somewhere and talk to them about any situation."
Working with undergraduate and graduate students, Dr. Tyson-McCrea and Dr. Richards will track the changes these youth experience in their academic performance, vocational and career aspirations, and social lives over time. Dr. Richards said they hope the program will help these kids cope with stress and empower one another.
Some of the high school students involved with the program feel they’ve benefited as much from the program as their mentees did.
“By helping others, you help yourself,” one female mentor said. “Even though they’re smaller than me and younger than me, I feel that I can learn something from them just as well as they can learn something from me.”
The program will eventually expand to three other neighborhoods: Bronzeville, North Lawndale, and South Lawndale. Learn more about the Risk and Resilience Lab here.
This grant is supported by Grant 2014-JU-FX-0003 awarded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Office of Justice Programs, US Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication/program/exhibition are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Justice.