CHICAGO (WLS) -- The MAAFA Redemption Project is a faith-based program working to make a difference in West Garfield Park, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago. ABC7's Roz Varon spent a day with the young men in this program at New Mt. Pilgrim Baptist Church.
Pastor Marshall Hatch Jr. sees good in these at-risk young men, and through the church, the MAAFA Redemption Project offers a nine month program that he believes will help these young men become the solution to the problem, instead of the problem itself.
Each day begins with the MAAFA Mission Statement, an affirmation to repair and rebuild the city one life at a time.
"West Garfield Park has the lowest life expectancy in the city," Pastor Hatch said. "We decided to kind of zero in on young men ages 18 to 30 and really create an oasis of opportunity, a host of services and opportunities for them."
"I went to prison when I was 15 years old, I didn't get out until I was 28," project director Malcolm Davis said. "I started finding myself back in the same circles and it was just so chaotic around me and then I met Deacon Ervin, one of the life coaches. He talked to me different than any other man talked to me and I came into this church and I never seen so many men in church, like my mother's church was all women! I want, I need to do that for these brothers, I want them to have exactly what I have."
"When I was 18, my big brother died from suicide, so that's when I was really like, ain't no God, and then I really started kickin' it with the wrong people, I got into drugs real heavy, I started smoking a lot, I started drinking a lot, poppin' pills, going crazy with the drugs," said Abtavius Cook.
"How much people believe in you - that surprised me. That surprised me, like no matter what we go through, no matter how hard we make it seem, we have people that still support us," participant Andre Scott said.
Life coaches work with the young men throughout a very structured day that begins with meditation, breakfast, work detail, studies and reflection. They live on campus five days a week, across from the church. And during the week, curfew is 10:00 p.m.
"I'm a grown man, I don't really look forward to having a curfew, so that was one thing that I really just hated, I hated it with a passion, but the 9 months went by so fast, I'm gonna miss it!" participant Shivonte Thomas said.
"As I went into the program months in, it's like we all created a bond, we started like a brotherhood, it's like we're family now," participant Michael Simmons said.
Education and vocational training are key components of the program.
"I'm sitting side by side, sometimes on doing one on one, sometimes I'm doing three or four at a time with the Penn Foster young men we're working toward getting them their high school diploma," educational director Janice Stewart said.
After completing the program, graduation is held during a special Sunday Church service.
"I want to be an attorney. It's something I always thought about but I never really thought I could obtain it," Shivonte Thomas said. "I'm going for it!"
"I just started thinking like, I really can make a difference," Cook said.
"We really are building the foundations by investing in these men, we're building families, we're building the foundations of really the future," Pastor Hatch said.
Since the graduation last month, all of the young men are currently employed. TJ is going back to school with plans to be a public school teacher, Michael and Andre have plans to be entrepreneurs and Shivonte has plans to go back to school and onto law school.
MAAFA Redemption Program aims to rebuild Chicago one life at a time