Cristina enters the room with a smile, her long wavy hair hanging loosely. Her grin is contagious and makes one feel at ease. We sit face to face as Cristina, a recent graduate with honors from World Language, one of four schools in Little Village High School Lawndale Campus, begins to tell me her story. Her hands move constantly, almost dancing with the rhythm of her words.
Cristina is one of the youth participants in Enlace’s Street Outreach Program, a program that promotes safe heaven, and provides programming and mentorship to youth in the community, many of whom are facing incredible challenges. Cristina works with Cecilia Mannion, one of the Street Outreach Workers. “I met Ceci in Piotrowski Park at (age) 16. She approached me and my friends and started asking us questions. She gave us a life lesson in 30 minutes.”
In that moment, Cristina, who was spending most of her time in Piotrowski, felt she really had no interest in knowing more about Cecilia or finding out more about Enlace. Nevertheless, she held on to Cecilia’s business card. It was only a few months later when Cristina and her friends were having car trouble near California and 21st street, and area where they did not feel safe. Cristina made the decision to ask Ceci for help. Cecilia arrived quickly. She took them to get something to eat, and then brought them to Enlace’s office at Troy, where she formally invited them to join the group of young people with whom she works.
From that moment, Cristina has continued to be a part of Enlace. “My first two years of High School, I was attending, but I wasn’t trying hard. My last two years were different though. I had time to think about what I wanted for my life, and I knew that I did not want to be the next person in a coffin. I want to be able to do what I want, and I don’t want to see myself in a place or situation that I don’t want to be in,” explains Cristina.
Enlace has been a source of support and company for Cristina. Daughter of Mexican immigrants, she is the second youngest of her parents’ eight children. “Enlace always encourages me. Interacting with Enlace has helped me realize that I can improve myself and also help improve my neighborhood. I like coming to Enlace,” explains Cristina
Ceci has been part of Cristina’s personal growth. “I had a taste of the street life and I don’t want that for me.” Cristina received the STAR scholarship and is already registered to begin classes at Richard J. Daley College. She says hopefully, “I want to study Criminal Justice and become a police officer.”
This summer, Cristina plays on Enlace’s softball team every Thursday in La Villita Park, and hopes to work for a second year for the Chicago Park District’s summer camp. “I’m 18 years old,” she says, “my life is starting. I’m from the hood, but the hood doesn’t make me.”