SMART kids

Briana was a young, “nerdy” girl, who struggled to fit in with her classmates and often got made fun of.  She lacked self-confidence and no longer enjoyed coming to school, despite her love for learning. For children like her, the Union League Boys and Girls Club provides an outlet to stay off the violent streets of Chicago.

The Union is a city-wide non-profit that promotes all forms of life development through academic success, good character and citizenship and healthy lifestyle. It serves more than 12,000 children and operates eight sites in Chicago.

Drew Markey

The Union offers a class called “SMART Girls,” which helps girls understand themselves and teaches them about healthy lifestyle choices and self-esteem enhancement. Through this class, Briana, 11, was able to turn her childhood experience around and become a mentor for fourth graders who are struggling with the same problems she had just two years ago.

“[The organization and this class] made me make friends and like coming to school.  I want to help the girls younger than me because I was like them,” she said.

Briana no longer regrets coming to school and is seen as one of the popular girls.

Onyinyeh Udeh, a former gang member, serves as the site leader for the Union at Stagg Elementary School in the Englewood neighborhood. Udeh, 32, oversees after school programs and gives children a place to learn and grow before going home.

Classes at Stagg are supposed to be capped at 15, but the more popular ones attract 30-40 children.  Karate is one of these classes, along with girl’s hip-hop and the newly implemented lyricism.

“I give the kids what they want.  They won’t stay after school for something they don’t like,” Udeh said.

Udeh grew up in the San Diego suburb of Skyline with her roots in Nigeria.  After completing her undergrad at University of California, San Marcos in 2006, she received her master’s degree from University of Wisconsin, Madison.  From there, she relocated to Garfield Park, where she now lives and commutes to Englewood—one of Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods.

“Shootings do happen…I’ve heard them here,” Udeh said as she pointed out her classroom window.  Stagg has locked down and cancelled after school programs as a result.  The students recognize the dangers, but children can’t do much to limit violence.

Udeh was a Bloods gang member through family affiliation, something she felt little control over. “My brothers were Bloods, so I had no choice,” she said. “Growing up in the neighborhood I did made people want to act tough, but that’s not who they are.”

When she first came to Chicago, Udeh began her work at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, where she continues to work as the program coordinator.

Drew Markey

Since arriving at the detention center, Udeh has mirrored the Union and set up two classes, one for boys and one for girls, that attempt to teach kids about taking the right path in life and not giving in to the temptations of the streets.

Udeh’s breakthrough moment came through volunteering in high school to tutor children at a boys and girls club near her childhood home.  She tutored a young girl who loved theater, but struggled with math.  After mentoring her through middle school and early high school, Udeh saw this girl on the Disney show, “That’s So Raven.”

“Seeing that, I knew these clubs were effective in a way that went beyond being a hangout spot for the children,” Udeh said.

It is because of this realization that Udeh hopes to build a future here in Chicago that includes more Union clubs and classes. “In order to grow, we need more exposure,” she said. “More exposure will lead to more money.”

Unfortunately, since Udeh started at the Union two years ago, she has not seen much change as a result of uninvolved parents and lack of classes offered to children not attending school. But she is trying to fill the void.

“God’s plan is to have me here,” she said, “and I’m going to do all I can to continue helping children here.”