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Social Services Mon Oct 17 2011

A North Side Beacon: Shari Fenton's Asian Youth Services

by Alan Lake

Safe havens for children living in gang and drug infested neighborhoods are few and far between, but for over 20 years the Asian Youth Services (AYS) after school program has filled the role. Besides tutoring math, science, history and reading, AYS aims to create a healthy atmosphere for any child who walks through the door, whether the student is the child of Cambodian refugees or recent Latin American immigrants.

Many of the children's families were victims of the Southeast Asian killing fields, so quite a few of their parents or grandparents are without formal education. Most are on public aid and rely on AYS for assistance for extra-academic aid, including for legal, health and housing problems.

As refugees, they can use all the help they can get.

Some of that help comes in the form of Shari Fenton, director of AYS. With a small team of irregular volunteers, Fenton pretty much runs the center herself. She believes she "serves as a concerned and supportive parent committed to caring for and empowering children." Having volunteered here over the last three years, I can testify that she gets an amazing amount done from a tiny desk in this small overcrowded storefront. She is always hunched over that desk attending to someone's needs, be it child or parent. I've never even seen her standing.

Fenton currently works with 50-70 children from preschool through high school and has a waiting list into perpetuity. She's had as many as 200 students at a time but that takes significantly more money and infrastructure -- both of which are currently in short supply.

Besides a warm meal each day, she provides bus passes, school supplies, lunch money, shoes and uniforms for many of the students. AYS also organizes field trips and after school classes taught by volunteer tutors/mentors in arts and crafts, music and martial arts. The emphasis is on providing positive role models, leadership training and non-violent conflict resolution skills. In Shari's words, AYS "strives to affect positive change by making a difference in the lives of the children."

Fenton arranges scholarships to private schools believing that they have "less chaos" (i.e. gang activity). She also believes that with its over 40% drop out rate and many kids reading at levels well below their grades, the Chicago Public School System is broken. Like Mayor Rahm Emanuel's children, most go elsewhere when given the option, but what if one doesn't have that option?

Compounding the educational system's problems is Shari's perspective that recent émigrés tend not to be as supportive of schooling than the first generation that are born here. She notes that "When you're uneducated and just trying to survive, it's difficult to make education a huge priority." The struggle is clearer when parents face checking homework in a language they don't read or attending school meetings they barely understand.

That's where AYS comes in. Against those odds, AYS is proud that over 95% of their children graduate high school.

While last year two students were honored by the National Honor Society, a couple of other students were shot by gang members while walking from the school bus to the center. The shooting scared the students in the center so badly that they insisted on repositioning enormous bookshelves into the storefront windows. In the process, they traded sunlight for safety.

Besides the violence just outside the door, today's economic climate brings ever increasing challenges to small not-for-profits like AYS. Before the downturn, funding was scarce, but it takes extra effort for Fenton to search for the funds now, effort better channeled towards the children. Given the organization's size, there is no staff to delegate to. No grant writers, no fund raisers; it's a one woman show.

While the organization is struggling to make ends meet with individual donations and Fenton's credit cards, the landlord is raising the rent claiming that the amount of garbage they generate is inordinate, while neighbors complain about the noise 50 kids make. Four months behind in payments, their five computers have no Internet. That's because there are other bills that take precedence at the moment: With the new school year upon us, school supplies alone cost upwards to $2,000. Fenton hasn't been paid in over a year and a half. "That probably won't change soon" as she laughs and gets back to more important matters at hand.

A year and a half without pay would probably cause most to reconsider their calling, but Fenton is determined not to give up. Maybe her background in theology gives her a different perspective than most. She long ago told me that she views this as her youth ministry. While many wouldn't mind volunteering a couple hours a week, who would work for this length of time without pay? Leading by example, her ethics are impressive enough to keep volunteers coming back.

Fenton knew early on that she wanted to help children "to give them a fighting chance." After working with another non-profit engaging refugee families in Uptown and not liking what she saw, she struck out on her own. It's been 20 years of six-to-seven day work weeks with no vacations. When Uptown began to gentrify due to condo conversions, many of her charges moved to Albany Park. AYS followed and is now serving a second generation of clientele: former students who are grown and are now sending their children to her program. Why? Because they remember when they needed furniture or a winter coat or had to bomb their apartment for bed bugs, AYS was there. Most importantly, they need a safe, supervised place to keep their children out of harm's way.

The hundreds of children and decades of pressures build. In a phone call questioning her sanity one day, Shari asked me if I thought "it's worth it" and if she were "making a difference." My response was that if I didn't think it was worth it and if she wasn't making a difference, I'd have never come back to teach "my kids" about rhythm and drums. Whatever I give, I get back in spades.


A brief synopsis on "my kids": I'm currently teaching five students who range in age from five to 10; four of the five are girls; one is a Hispanic immigrant and the others are Cambodian refugees. They do well: Three made straight As, and one was just shy of it. The other student didn't know the alphabet at age eight and six months later was reading from books out loud. Most of the children are from single parent households with little support outside of extended families and AYS. As such, their home lives vary from doting and involved to superstitious and fearful. In their insular community, illiteracy and poverty are chronic problems and the Cambodian political struggles still live in the elders, who remain suspicious of police and government.

Sometimes the kids love my class, and sometimes it's a battle -- especially in the summer when they'd rather be playing in the park. We compromise by going there to practice once and a while. The students do sticking patterns or grooves they've learned on the slides, swings or dirt. I tell them music is everywhere, so the play suits me and proves the point to them. A few of the students show promise, and one is just taking up space but clearly enjoys it -- I let it be.

When teaching children you learn to be patient ... and to adapt. While volunteering, I've learned that being there regularly is most important. The instruction is just the gravy. We all hunger for love, and to a kid, consistency is paramount. The fact that you're there and part of their lives, that's the meat of it. It takes time to build a strong relationship and being dependable is the brick and mortar for its foundation.

Most of all, what children need is our presence.

In speaking with Larry Satkoski (a fellow volunteer) he told me that his life as a commodities broker felt empty. That "the high of a good day at the Board of Trade only lasts an hour or so. Here, these rewards change your life... more than any [profit and loss] statement ever did." His realization that "it feels better to help people than make money" keeps him balanced, fulfilled and focused on service. Larry's been coming back for six years.

The Organization in Context

With all of its efforts, how does an organization like AYS fit into daily life here in Chicago? How badly are they and others needed, and what do they provide and accomplish?

James Lewis is a Ph.D. with the Chicago Community Trust and Senior Program Officer for their Basic Human Needs program. Currently he's conducting a comprehensive evaluation of strategies aimed at maximizing the use of resources to fight poverty. He also manages the Trust's joint initiatives with the United Way.

Dr. Lewis says small non-profits like AYS "are effective in that they are well connected and responsive to the community that they serve." Without them, the children would be on the street, a particularly bad place for vulnerable at risk kids to be.

"The challenge facing small non-profits is the lack of administrative infrastructure, which makes it hard to grow. They're generally dependent upon the single individual that created them. Without a strong, dynamic board of directors in place with diverse talents and connections, it's hard to compete for funding with other more sophisticated foundations or organizations." Most of the problems faced by AYS are a direct result of this circumstance.

What's particularly difficult about this situation is that if funding and support were determined by need and good deeds, AYS wouldn't be facing the threat of near collapse, but well-organized groups with the crucial infrastructure in place have funding advantages. While these organizations can be top heavy with administrators, they may also have the requisite team of professional fundraisers, grant writers and staff to identify and pursue funding. While bringing money into the fold, paying those salaries also reduces the amount donated or granted, instead of being used for the mission statement. AYS is the opposite: a one woman operation in a crowded room, stretched well beyond their capacity to fill the needs of the community she serves. With no salaries to pay, 100% of the money is spent on survival expenses like rent and electricity and the rest goes to the kids. The financial difficulties the organization is facing make the trade-off clear.

Successes, Failures and Perseverance

Asked her greatest accomplishment, Shari waxes on about a child that was targeted by a gang in grammar school, whom she got placed into a parochial school where he flourished. This led to Gordon Tech, the football team, becoming an honor student and now, attending SIU. Another is a boy who seemed smart but just couldn't read. Suspecting that there was more to it than that, it was arranged to have him evaluated by the Family Lab at DePaul University who diagnosed his dyslexia. Today he's doing quite well in school and has realized "maybe I'm not stupid," something he says aloud frequently.

Asked her most heartbreaking memory, Fenton becomes somber recalling a few that just didn't make it, typically due to a lack of family support. "Once you get to know the kids and their families, things can improve and they can have hope. But I don't always get to know them. I just want to give kids the opportunity to be self sufficient, compassionate adults. Every child deserves that."

Epilogue: A Request

Mother Teresa said "We can do no great things, only small things with great love." But many small things add up. It doesn't take much to help the cause, nor does it need to be a major commitment.

AYS has a PayPal account that is virtually unused. You can change that by visiting the AYS donation webpage. While you could donate any amount you like, one options is suppling a full meal one day a month; at $1.50 a kid, that's 75 bucks and often the best meal of their day. Other needs include paying the Internet or electric bill or even organizing a field trip. Volunteering is flexible and can be tailored to your talents. Any help is welcome, again, it's more about being there than what you do while you're there.

Shari Fenton is not dynamic or good for a glib sound bite, but If you were to see the work being done here and the results, you'd be impressed.

Walk the walk with AYS. It's a beautiful and rewarding journey you won't regret.

About the Author

Alan Lake has been a professional chef for nearly three decades and has won numerous awards, professional competitions and distinctions. He mainly consults now. He's also been a professional musician since he was a child and coined the term "Jazzfood" to describe his "solid technique based upon tasteful improvisational abilities." He views his food as he does his music and has been known to bust a pout if either is subpar. "Casa de Soul," a new record of all Brazilian material will be available shortly.

This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information about the program is available here.

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Ed Cohn / October 19, 2011 3:04 PM

Alan as we say in Spain

David Floodstrand / December 20, 2012 3:19 PM

It gives one hope for humanity to see something like this, bravo! Keep up the good work!

Ruth / February 20, 2013 11:24 PM

Was trying to access the donation link but it said website not found!

David Knezz / July 7, 2014 2:22 PM

Way to go Alan. Your listening to your own heart is an inspiration to us all.

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