CHICAGO — With smoky barbecue scent filling the air and '80s hip-hop thumping from a speaker, two inner-city teens lead their teams up and down the forest preserve field in a friendly but spirited game of pickup football.
Alex, 18 and wiry, weaves across the field, making athletic catches and striding into the end zone, but Sammy, 15 and a dedicated school athlete, later returns a punt to win the game. As he sprints downfield, Sammy turns to the cheering sideline, his face breaking into a smile, reflecting the laid-back vibe of a summer day. The madness is miles away.
Alex and Sammy live in a place where porches get shot up and the menacing slide of a passing van's door can carry a deadly threat. Surviving demands rapid decisions, urgent navigation to safety or, as Sammy — who counts three near-misses in his life — describes it, just dumb luck.
For 12 weeks at a time, the YMCA of Metro Chicago is pairing kids from one of the Chicago neighborhoods on edge with people who know well the struggle of surviving a dangerous place: military veterans who fought in the nation's two most recent wars. Youths from Little Village, including Sammy and Alex, were part of the pilot Urban Warriors run by the YMCA and the Adler School of Professional Psychology. The program is part of a broader effort by the Y to focus on treating mental and emotional wounds that youths growing up in Chicago's more fractured communities suffer.
In the first six months of this year, homicides in Chicago held even at 171, but the number of shooting victims was up 8 percent, with 1,103 people wounded. Though homicides have dropped significantly from the early 1990s, when as many as 900 people were slain, Chicago still ranks tops among the nation's larger cities in shootings and homicides. In neighborhoods such as Little Village, Englewood and Roseland, the threat seems as constant and consistent as ever, no matter what the stats say.
That kind of violence takes a toll on young people — especially if they also face challenges such as poverty, dysfunctional families or incarcerated parents, said Eddie Bocanegra, one of the executive directors of the YMCA's new initiative. Some teens cope through drinking or drugs, and they feel edgy. That can fuel violent behavior, Bocanegra argues.
Last weekend as more than 80 people were shot, 16 fatally, Chicago once again made national news for its violence. These are the youths who face it daily. And this is one effort, though small, to help them cope.
Some of the teens in Urban Warriors have been referred by the justice system or by their schools; others were recruited by the Y's violence intervention workers. But they all share high exposure to trauma, including violence. Many of the teens are involved with gangs.
The vets and youths in the program have shared "war stories," of losing friends and witnessing violence. Each week, a kid seemed to arrive with a fresh battle story.
"I've seen people get shot," said Alex, whose mind flashes back to those events. "It does … mess my head up. But I am living it every day. So, like, I guess I put up with it."
Even at age 15, Sammy has not one, but three "war stories" to tell.
"We passed through 24th and Millard, and some dude on a bike came out and started shooting, saying, 'Where you from, where you from?' We turned real quick. We ran across real quick. I was like, 'Let's go, let's go!'"
That was the first shooting Sammy recalled. Then there was one at his high school as he left varsity practice.
"Right when I walked outside they shot someone at the corner. Then they started chasing me and shooting. … I got away. Again. That was my second time."
In the third shooting incident, Sammy, who is not in a gang, escaped a spray of gunfire on a porch where he was sitting. In his haste to get away, he fell down the porch stairs and landed in a good hiding place. "I got behind a tree luckily," he said, "and they didn't see me."
Bocanegra and his co-director, Ryan Lugalia-Hollon, started designing trauma-based treatment programs a year ago across the city. By the end of the year, they will have served 400 youths and 100 parents. Urban Warriors was launched in Little Village but will expand into South Chicago at the end of the summer.
Vets chosen for the project, after two rounds of interviews, indicated a willingness to work with at-risk youths. They also suffered stress from having served. And many, having grown up in Little Village too, talked of their own scrapes with trouble or of having family members involved in violence. One, Alberto Boleres — who survived a roadside bomb near Tikrit, Iraq, in 2007 — had been shot in Chicago.
Organizers of Urban Warriors also saw a critical benefit to the veterans — providing a sense of purpose, something many who leave the military crave but struggle to find, they said.
Grady Osten-Garner Jr., coordinator of the military clinical psychology track at Adler and himself a veteran, facilitated weekly discussions about topics such as loyalty, brotherhood, belonging and manhood. In one conversation, a veteran who was wounded and left on the side of a road for more than an hour shared how he broke down in tears after being rescued.
It was a conversation about image, the pressure to maintain it and how that translates on the street.
"These kids are poor. Financial (capital), they don't have. Social capital? It's the gang leaders, the playboys of the neighborhood. The capital they actually have is reputation," Bocanegra said. "Reputation means a lot for these kids. And what that reputation means is, 'I have to maintain an image.' Because at the end of the day, it's about protecting yourself."
The vets could relate to the youths on some levels.
"They always said they had to be on point or aware or careful," said Richard Rivera, 30, who served in the Marines. "We told them we can relate a lot. Except you guys are fighting for a street corner, and we are fighting for a country."
Adler researchers have been studying Urban Warriors and will evaluate whether there was a reduction in stress for the youths and the vets. What seemed obvious, as the program wound down, was that a bond had formed between the two groups.
Wolf Road Woods is at the end of a long, hilly, rustic stretch, past serene lakes with names like Maple and Bullfrog.
The vets and the youths, nearing the end of their program, gathered there last month to relax and celebrate what they'd accomplished. For three or so hours, the group played ball, barbecued and hung out. There was no set agenda, though, as always, they began and ended with a "peace circle," a chance to check in on how everybody was feeling.
A small group also walked a quiet preserve trail, Bocanegra leading the way with his daughter on his shoulders.
"This is my sanctuary," said Bocanegra, who has been doing violence prevention work in Chicago for six years and is about to complete his master's in social work at the University of Chicago. Bocanegra, from Little Village, served time in prison for a gang-related murder and has two brothers and a sister who served in the military. Conversations with his siblings led him to the idea of connecting vets with troubled youths, he said.
After the walk, and as the group was packing up, Alex grabbed a large black rope and told Bocanegra they'd forgotten the tug of war.
So they faced off, youths on one side, vets on the other. After the teens playfully released the rope to send the vets tumbling to the ground, they went on to handily beat their elders in three contests. The vets took to the grass for pushups as punishment.
"They look up to us, which I love," Boleres had said earlier. "They have a lot of potential. … They consider themselves a little Army, which is messed up."
As Boleres, 33, spoke, Alex jogged over to hand him his phone for safekeeping as well as a cigarette, which Boleres flipped behind his ear with a smile.
"He's got a lot of charisma," Boleres said. "Smarts."
Alex's smile does seem to change his whole face, opening it up. He has expressive eyes. He's quiet and curious. But the teen, like many in the program, has also been involved in street violence and was cited as a juvenile five years ago for carrying a gun in Chicago, according to records.
The story, as told in his arrest report, casts him as one in a long line of anonymous armed threats on Chicago's streets. Police arrested Alex in June 2009 after he dropped a plastic bag that had a loaded .45-caliber handgun in it, according to the report.
When asked about the arrest, Alex focuses on different memories of that day. He said he was alone and carrying a handgun to pass to a friend when a minivan rolled by and a group inside started flashing gang signs.
"I actually froze," he said. "I was walking away and see the back door slide open. That is when I instantly thought, 'I got to do something before they all come get me.' I pulled out the gun. … I was just trying to scare them away."
Since the gun case, Alex has been charged with a handful of misdemeanors.
By the program's end, several vets said they felt hopeful that they had provided some kind of incentive or motivation for teens such as Alex to do some hard work and find different ways to cope with the environment they were handed.
"I recognize that behind every tattoo and underneath every scar there is a person with a story," veteran Angel Herrera, 32, said of the youths at a recent recognition ceremony for the program. "There is a heart that feels, there is a mind that thinks, and is ready for us to plant that seed."
At the recognition ceremony, inside a large room at a West Side auditorium, the teens sat in the two front rows, wearing matching blue YMCA shirts, listening to several dignitaries speak.
Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia spoke about how incarceration has failed to cure the violence that has affected generations of families in Little Village, his own neighborhood. Others spoke of understanding the worry of having parents living in the country illegally or having to survive on food stamps. They encouraged the teens to set goals and to put aside negative labels.
Then it was the teens' turn.
Elvis, 17, told a troubling story of "catching his first case" when he was just 11 or 12 after he was involved in a stabbing. At the time he thought he was a warrior, a soldier, he said. Later he struggled coming out of jail and didn't care much about life. Urban Warriors, he said, has kept him positive. The best part? It was a place to be safe for a few hours.
"It's rough out here," he said, and then quickly shifted topics, allowing his personality to shine through.
"Look at me now: I'm just chilling right here, giving a little speech," he said, drawing laughs.
Then Sammy spoke, telling the crowd he surprised himself with a high GPA this year in honors classes and how, despite witnessing violence, he refuses to yield to the gangs.
"I always kept my hopes up," said the teen, who has dreams of being a lawyer.
Alex, who has a steady job these days and is playing in a softball league, listened intently to Sammy. When the younger boy finished speaking he returned to his seat next to Alex, and the teens shook hands, Alex giving a nod of approval.
Tribune reporter Rosemarie Regina Sobol contributed.