Building Community, One Family at a Time
By Robert Schroeder
NLU Alumni Magazine
The city of Waukegan, along the shores of Lake Michigan north of Chicago, has seen its share of violent of crime. But the 2002 gang-ordered execution-style murders of 16-year-olds David Mackins and Jarreau Patterson, found stuffed in a car trunk in Zion, Ill., threatened to turn Waukegan’s smoldering gang conflicts into a full-scale war.
The community at large, however, had seen enough. John Caples, pastor of Jesus Name Apostolic Church, reached out to U.S. Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL), then a Representative in the 10th Congressional District, and the two partnered to launch the Family First Center, whose mission is to strengthen community by placing emphasis on rebuilding the family, repairing division, and developing strategies to empower change. From day one, the center has been managed by 54-year-old NLU alumna Evelyn Chenier, Ph.D. Community Psychology ‘03.
“[Our clients] feel like we are family, and they call us the caretakers of Lake County,” Evelyn said. “Although we have rules and regulations, we don’t quit until we find an answer, and we service with a heart.”
The center focuses on converting entire lifestyles; for younger clients, the goal is to remove them from the streets, steer them towards a GED, enrolling in college or job training, and eventually obtaining a job. The Smarties program, working with children ages 8-13, provides after-school enrichment in critical thinking, arts and crafts, drama, math and reading.
For the many adult clients, the focus is often on personal health. The center offers a free gym and a community health workers program targeting individuals with high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. The center also provides rental, utility and food assistance, not as handouts but as tools to push individuals and families towards the path of self-empowerment.
“We have a young man right now who is destined to become a gang member if he is not caught up and turned around,” Evelyn said of a 13-year old client who carries a gun and has had several close scrapes with the law. “We have given him a mentor, and we believe this young man is on the right track to turn his life around.”
Read more from the Winter 2013 NLU Alumni Magazine