'Dr. Joe' helps at risk through Chicago Youth Programs

February 10, 2011 3:35:12 PM PST
For nearly three decades, a local doctor has been working two full-time jobs -- one paid and one volunteer -- both with the goal of saving the city's most vulnerable residents.

Dr. Joseph Dicara spends his days and nights showing his spirit of giving. Dr. Dicara is a pediatrician in Northwestern Memorial Hospital's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. He works the night shift treating newborns in the most critical conditions.

"I do long shifts at the hospital so I do 16 to 24 hour shifts and then I will come in here either before I go on my shift or after I go on my shift or both," Dr. Dicara.

Dr. Dicara is the founder of Chicago Youth Programs (chicagoyouthprograms.org), a comprehensive community organization that works to break the cycle of poverty. Dicara started it back in 1984 when he was still a med student at Northwestern.

"At the time, right outside our door in the Cabrini Green public housing project, children were being shot every day. Rarely was a girl getting through high school without becoming a young mother. There were high rates of drug abuse. Gang violence was rampant. Yet, in our first two years of our medical school career, we didn't hear a single lecture on what we felt were the real health risks that all Chicago children faced at that time," Dr. Dicara said.

What started as after-school involvement near Cabrini Green developed into 43 programs that serve nearly 900 children at three locations. The programs heavily stress mentoring, leadership and education.

"They help me with my work and they know a lot of stuff that I don't know," Jeremiah McKinley, 7th grade, said.

"We had this girls' mentor program, like everyday girls' issues, and we had a Saturday program where they used to take us out and do stuff," Shaunte Davis, 11 th grade, said. Davis has been involved in the program since fourth grade.

The organization accepts children at birth and supports them through college or trade school -- even offering need-based scholarships.

"Sometimes it's buying their curlers for cosmetology school. Sometimes it's buying their construction tools for a carpentry program. And sometimes it's paying for their college tuition or paying for the bus to go to college," Dicara said.

"Most people would settle for finding a job once they got out of school and Dr. Joe was pushing us for better. You're going to college. This is what we want for you. We want better for you," said Stephany Price, who joined the program in the eighth grade and now works as the group's health director.

Known as Dr. Joe in the community, Dicara said the group's long term affect to help create a brighter future for at-risk youth directly complements his work as a physician.

"I think the best thing we can do for the health of our children long term is to get them out of poverty," Dr. Joseph Dicara said. "That way, the health risks that are so many times more prevalent for children and adults living in poverty will be reduced more than any other thing that we can do."

Chicago Youth Programs is staffed by about 700 volunteers. They are now trying to raise funds to open a fourth location on the city's West Side. Learn more about the program at chicagoyouthprograms.org.