Chicago teen among those sharing gun violence experience with federal lawmakers

CHICAGO (WLS) -- A Chicago teen is among several people telling federal lawmakers about their experiences with gun violence as they search for ways to stop it.

The first to testify was a 19-year-old from Chicago's West Side.

"This is something young people should never have the deal -- fear that I would be shot," said Ernest Willingham.

Before the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearing on protecting American children from gun violence, Willingham spoke about what helped him navigate violence in Chicago and achieve success.

"This program changed the path of my life and a number of my siblings," he said.

Willingham is one of the thousands of Chicago kids who have gone through Chicago Youth Programs, or CYP. It's based out of Lurie Children's Hospital but a separate non-profit is currently looking for mentors and more young people who might need guidance and support.

The founders recently looked at how the program impacted to lives of kids 33 years ago.

"[They are] twice as likely to graduate college, twice as likely to have money at the end of the month, more likely to be healthy and more likely to say their standard of living was better than where their parents," said Dr. Karen Sheehan, co-founder of Chicago Youth Program.

Sheehan was there at the start of the program in 1984.

"It's really cheaper if you prevent violence from occurring in the first place," she said. "Fifty people think it's complicated but it isn't. We just need to create safe social and physical environments for youth with caring adults."

Diamond McNulty, who is now the CEO of a catering company and on the Board of CYP, was among the first kids at Cabrini Green to participate.

"It takes time for you to pour into youth and build that rapport with them, but once you do so, they will listen to you and want to become something greater in life," McNulty said.

As for Willingham, he is in his third year at Northeastern University and plans to go into medicine.
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