Chicago program hopes to help young men, revitalize West Garfield Park

Initiative has special significance as Juneteenth nears, amid COVID pandemic
CHICAGO (WLS) -- The MAAFA Redemption Project is a faith-based program for young men in the underserved West Garfield Park neighborhood.

In the five years since the program began, nearly 75 have graduated.

The program continues to expand, and there's special significance as Juneteenth nears.

"We've grown deeper; our roots have grown deeper, and the community work is richer," said Marshall Hatch Jr., executive director of the MAAFA Redemption Project.

In spite of the COVID pandemic, the program has continued to broaden its skill training and change the lives of dozens of young men.

"I never thought I'd be doing the things I'm doing now, like with data entry," said Quentin Harris, MAAFA alumni coordinator and data entry manager. "I was never really good with computers, but praise the Lord; he gave me the strength to do it."

MAAFA alumnus Tommie Jones said the program changed his life.

"I know I can do something better than what I was doing," Jones said. "After I graduated, they offered me a position here, just to come back and work, even though I told them I was coming back to work anyway because I'm MAAFA for life!"

Fellow alumnus Abtavius Cooks said he got his job because of MAAFA.

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"I was interviewed and hired because of my construction background," said Cooks, who works as a Four Seasons technician now. "They hired me as a helper for a whole year; I was training with Four Seasons learning how to do HVAC, install furnaces and ACs and humidifiers and stuff like that."

Robert Ervin, a MAAFA life coach program manager, said they're working with a lot of young men with mental health and substance abuse issues.

"It's a sensitive issue; I mean some of them have dealt with a lot of stuff, a lot of trauma, and they don't want to go back there and deal with it," he said.

The group is working to revitalize its community.

"If we want to rebuild and reconstruct a safer West Garfield Park and East Garfield Park, where do we start? A wellness center that focuses on drug use disorder, that focuses on mental health and wellness, physical health and wellness," Hatch said.

Theodore J. Crawford, MAAFA staff clinician and director of Garfield Park Right To Wellness Collaborative said the center, which will be located on the corner of Madison Street and Kildare Avenue, is a "clear sign to the community that things can change."

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Right now, that's just a vacant lot in the middle of a community that's suffering from decades of disinvestment, he said.

Ten MAAFA graduates have been trained in community health work through Rush University Medical Center and West Side United.

"We have a young man at Rush right now, Marquis Pitts," Hatch said. "He's employed by Rush, and Rush is footing the bill for him to get a degree in radiology."

The MAAFA redemption project is so compelling, a documentary about the program is being featured at two major film festivals this year.

"All These Sons" follows Shamont Slaughter as he encounters MAAFA and goes through individual transformation. It was most recently show at Tribeca, and will be premiered in Chicago at Doc10 this weekend, in conjunction with Juneteenth.

"Appreciating the well-earned wisdom of the past, appreciating the stories of our ancestors is how we heal a lot of the damage that white supremacy and racism in this country has wrought on the Black psyche," Hatch said.
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