Josue Morales pauses before going on. The 18-year-old is the primary caregiver for his mother and uncle, who both tested positive for COVID-19 in March and are still slowly recovering at their home in Albany Park.
“I’ve had people help me through this process,” he continues. “They helped with so many things. Where do I go for this? Who do I call? What do I give them to eat?”
As the coronavirus pandemic hit his family — Josue also had mild symptoms but didn’t get tested — he struggled to keep up with the remote learning assignments necessary to finish his senior year and graduate from Roosevelt High School. And he felt responsible for helping his two younger brothers keep up with their classwork.
Neither his uncle, a restaurant worker, nor his mother, a housekeeper, have been able to return to work, and a paid internship Josue had in a biology lab was canceled because of the state’s stay-at-home order.
Josue has begun to question his own dreams.
“I want to be the first person in my family to graduate from a four-year college,” he said.
For thousands of young people across the Chicago region, the COVID-19 pandemic has set off a cascade of problems and complications as summer training programs are canceled, job offers are rescinded and family finances hit a crisis point. Most are shifting gears and making new plans, but they’re all overwhelmed.
When we on the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board first imagined this community wide initiative, “Chicago Forward: Young Lives in the Balance,” in late 2019, we intended to explore access to jobs and job-training programs as an essential pillar in reaching our disconnected youth — those who are 16 to 24 and are out of school, out of work and at risk of slipping off the path toward a healthy, productive future.
We didn’t imagine a global pandemic that is disproportionately affecting Chicago’s minority communities, causing staggering unemployment and upending how we work and live — and that undoubtedly will last for years. Yet, these young people must remain a priority. As we said when we launched our initiative
, each disconnected young person costs society about $37,000 a year, or $900,000 over his or her lifetime, in lost earnings, lower economic growth, lower tax revenues and higher government spending. That’s nearly $2 billion a year for Chicago.
And each of these lives matter. They are young people who deserve to be viewed as more than statistics or tax burdens. They are the future, too. Would we miss out on a Pavarotti or a van Gogh or a patient teacher or a caring social worker by emphasizing their value any less?
The Chicago area is fortunate to have a strong network of programs working to keep our young people on track. But like our schools, businesses and public institutions, they are reeling — scrambling to rethink outreach programs that depend on in-person relationships, imagining new ways to cultivate leadership skills over Zoom with kids whose access to Wi-Fi and technology is spotty at best, searching for ways to keep the youth in their programs engaged and off the streets.
Jayla Rufus, youth program manager for Chicago CRED, praised the collaboration she’s seeing among the city’s organizations as they try to navigate stay-at-home orders and best public health practices. “We’re always talking,” she said. “Changes are happening day by day. It used to be week by week. But our priority is still keeping the them focused.”
Everyone is innovating, everyone is looking for new ideas.
Before the COVID-19 crisis, Ofelia Eulogio, 20, was on track to become a registered nurse. She worked three days a week at a Loop restaurant to pay for classes at Harold Washington College, where she would finish her prerequisites over the summer and apply for a university nursing program. When the pandemic hit, she lost her restaurant job and had to put off summer classes. She lives in an apartment in Edgewater with her parents, four siblings, a niece and a nephew, and the idea of handling video-based classwork from her hectic home, even if she could pay for it, felt daunting.
Instead, she leaned back on connections she’d made in high school through Youth Guidance’s WOW (Working on Womanhood) program and has entered a training program with Sprint, a corporate partner of Youth Guidance’s workforce development program. Ofelia will begin working soon at one of the phone company’s retail stores, where she’ll eventually earn a sales commission and she’s confident she can remain safe from the virus.
So far, her family has remained healthy, even though both of her parents have to leave the house for work — her father at a restaurant serving carryout and her mother as a housekeeper in area nursing homes.
“My mom is scared of the situation,” she said, noting the high number of COVID-19 cases in nursing homes. “She’s overwhelmed, but she’s staying positive.”
Ofelia remains grateful for her Sprint opportunity but also looks forward to resuming her studies. “What’s my next step, and how am I going to overcome all of this? There’s just so much uncertainty.”
We’re impressed by the resilience among the young people we’ve talked with as well as the perseverance of the program leaders and heads of organizations that support this population, but we see great challenges ahead. Already scarce funding will be harder to come by as local, state and federal government leaders scramble to shore up public health resources and prop up fragile budgets.
So we are calling on Chicago’s business community to step up, even more than many already have, at this crucial point. We are asking local companies — the manufacturers, financial institutions and service industries that make up the engine of our city — to make a Chicago Forward Pledge
to hire more of the young people from our most vulnerable communities, as interns, seasonal workers or full-time staff. We urge the generous business owners and CEOs of Chicago to send us your pledge (email it to firstname.lastname@example.org
with “PLEDGE” in the subject line), so that we can share with our readers the successes bound to come.
As one program leader reminded us, “We have to be that link, that connection” because not everyone has a parent or family friend with the kinds of connections that lead to a job hookup. Consider the impact one work opportunity could have on a smart young person whose options have suddenly become so limited.
Mena Ruiz, 22 and a former WOW participant, lost her membership sales job at LA Fitness when the shutdown began. Living at home in Gage Park with a mom whose health problems prevent her from working and two brothers still in high school, Mena has been trying frantically to learn the status of her unemployment benefits, her federal stimulus check and any job opportunities.
“I call every number three times a day looking for help,” she said. “It’s frustrating.”
Programs such as Youth Guidance, one of the largest outreach organizations in the region, can offer a lifeline to young people being squeezed by the impact of the pandemic. Youth Guidance provided Mena with free counseling and gave her a few hundred dollars to help with rent and groceries. But, describing herself as someone who “has always worked,” she says she just wants a job.
“This is crazy. I never could’ve imagined life could be this way.”
Josue remains on a strong path. His teachers have worked with him to finish his schoolwork. And he plans to attend Northeastern Illinois University in the fall, where he has been accepted and earned a scholarship to help with expenses.
He credits his connections at Genesys Works, a national youth workforce program that partners with companies in major cities, for keeping him on track. His lab internship was through the organization and he’s now exploring job opportunities in the program’s Chicago office, to carry him through school.
Job development programs are effective. A Columbia University study
showed the social return on investment from Genesys Works was 13 to 1, meaning that through college enrollment and higher expected lifetime earnings, $13 was returned back to our society and economy for every $1 invested in a program participant. We like those odds.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown our economy and social order into disarray. As we emerge with new approaches to work and living, let’s remember that our young people — especially those from our most vulnerable communities — will be instrumental in pushing Chicago Forward. Make the Chicago Forward Pledge today.
About Genesys Works
Genesys Works provides pathways to career success for high school students in underserved communities through skills training, meaningful work experiences, and impactful relationships. Our program consists of 8 weeks of technical and professional skills training, a paid year-long corporate internship, college and career coaching, and alumni support to and through college. Our goal is to move more students out of poverty and into professional careers, creating a more productive and diverse workforce in the process. Since its founding in 2002, Genesys Works has grown to serve nearly 4,000 students annually in Houston, Chicago, Minneapolis/St. Paul, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Washington’s National Capital Region. To learn more, visit genesysworks.org.