Smile Politely

Talking to teens in C-U: Summer opportunities

Summer in Champaign-Urbana — it’s hot (though some would argue it’s not the heat, it’s actually just the humidity). It’s slower and quieter compared to the bustling school year, when University of Illinois students are buzzing about campus. Having grown up in Champaign, I remember spending most of my summer vacations sitting around at home, devouring library books in the air conditioning, hitching a ride to Sholem Pool with my friends, and taking our annual family road trip to visit my grandparents. But that was summer for me, a millennial girl in my pre-internet Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys world, a couple decades ago. What are Champaign-Urbana teens doing over the summer these days?

Loréal Allen is a 15-year old Central High School student, and she has had a very busy summer. If her name sounds familiar, don’t be too surprised. Allen is not only an athlete and a star student, but she’s also very involved with the community. She shared the high points and low points of what she and other teens have been up to this summer, along with some ideas for how Champaign-Urbana can be a better, safer place for youth when school is out.

Like many local teens, Allen picked up a summer job. She is a youth mentor with DREAAM (Driven to Reach Excellence and Academic Achievement for Males), a thriving youth program that has been expanding to include programming for girls and young women. This paid summer gig has not only given Allen a little extra cash, but has given her the opportunity to mentor younger girls in DREAAM. Kids and teens in DREAAM’s summer programming have filled their days with writing and performing poetry, gardening, reading, and academic activities.

A smiling Black teenage girl in a black t-shirt with a white logo and shorts stands in front of a garden pond, trees, and a tan building with a red domed roof. Photo provided by Loreal AllenPhoto provided by Loréal Allen.

Allen also joined other C-U teens by participating in Upward Bound, a federally-funded program through the University of Illinois that prepares qualified high school students for college. Allen was able to connect the lessons and skills taught by this college prep program with college visit opportunities offered by yet another amazing program in our community called G.I.R.L.S. (Genuine Intelligent Respectful Ladies Soaring) “Thankfully, Upward Bound was virtual, so I was able to go on college tours with G.I.R.L.S. all the way in California and Nevada,” explains Allen. “I was able to visit UCLA, Loyola Marymount University, University of Nevada at Las Vegas, and a couple more [universities].”

Many of us have eagerly welcomed the return of real-life gatherings and travel after a year of conducting professional and social business remotely. However, virtual options have continued to open doors for many folks this summer, from online summer camps to virtual classes covering a wide variety of subjects. They have given many Champaign-Urbana youth and families the opportunity to advance their education or careers, or participate in local government and community organizing, while also spending time with family. Allen credits virtual summer programming, like Upward Bound, for giving her more avenues to reach her goals while staying close to family. She explains that, “the best part of my summer has been …spending time with family, whether it was staying inside and quarantining together, or going out and…bonding doing things we love.”

Even though there are so many great free and fee-based opportunities for teens around Champaign-Urbana this summer, many kids and teens are living with the reality of gun violence this summer. Allen also spoke to the scary reality of this violence impacting her community. Seventeen year old Kieshaun Thatch was killed by gun violence in early July. Just a few weeks before this fatal shooting, a 14-year old boy was injured by multiple gunshots. And in the first half of June, multiple boys and young men aged 14-18 were hurt by intentional or accidental gunfire, and more men in their 20s and 30s were hurt or killed by gun violence.

Teens have lost loved ones or, sadly, even their own lives, in a deadly crisis that is complex and that disproportionately impacts young people from marginalized and excluded neighborhoods. Summer programming alone can’t end the violence that traumatizes our city’s teens on a near-daily basis, but it can help bridge gaps in communities and neighborhoods that have been harmed by unfair policies and policing, lack of job opportunities, and underfunded projects that make economic and social advancement possible. Summer programs like Allen has participated in gives teens opportunities to advance academically and economically while also building self worth and healthy relationships, which are all key components in reducing community violence. 

While there are so many people working tirelessly to run and fund programs in an effort to give our youngest neighbors positive activities to fill their minds and time, there is tremendous opportunity and need for more support. Allen explains how there is also a need for more safe spaces for teens to spend time with each other.

“In my opinion, I think there should be more opportunities for teens to get out more and be more social with their peers. There should be more social settings for teens to hang out. Teens don’t always want to go to the movies or go to the mall. Most recently, at the county fair, I was unable to attend due to age limitations. You now have to be 17 or older to go into the fair alone. This sucks, because now 14-16 year olds aren’t able to enjoy themselves. However, I [have the] understanding that this is because 14-16 year olds like to meet up at certain places and fight. Although that shouldn’t stop the other 14-16 year olds [who] don’t want to fight from having fun.”

So what are teens doing in the meantime to develop these strong bonds and build community? Allen recommends that teens, especially those new to the area, get involved in the community and roll up their sleeves. “I’m currently a part of I.Y.A.N. (Involvement Youth Activist Network). So far this summer, my colleagues and I (Kobe Clark, Sydnie Williams, and Ayan Harris) helped put together a couple of protests. We’ve held our own candlelight vigil for Ma’Khia Bryant (a 16-year old Black girl who was killed by a Columbus, OH police officer), and also put together our own protest.”

And like it or not, every summer’s end kicks off a new school year. Allen says she is ready. “I am super excited for school to start up in a few weeks. I’ll have the opportunity to meet some online friends that I’ve made during virtual learning, and I’ll also be able to see my friends. Not only that, I’ll be able to connect with my teacher better. I’ll also be able to attend afterschool programs and join new school clubs. I can’t wait for school to start so that my social life can resume. I feel like I’ve been locked up inside this dark hole during COVID, and now I feel like I’m able to get out of it.”

Top photo by Loréal Allen.

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