By Matt Mutino

Woodlawn Youth Solutions, a six-week program that imbued local teenagers with a sense of responsibility to their community, made a visible impact this summer on the Woodlawn neighborhood just south of the Midway Plaisance.

The program, in which teens helped beautify Woodlawn’s public spaces, put more than their green thumbs to work. They also learned to write resumes and perform well in job interviews, while earning a wage for their labor.

“The most valuable aspect was that it gave these teens a positive attitude toward employment,” said Tyree Liddell, of Christ Way MB Church, one of the institutions that brought the program to fruition.

Karen Indeck of archi-treasures, a nonprofit organization and program partner, said, “What we were trying to do was create balance for the teens between enjoying their summer, helping their community, and earning some money.”

A Community Effort

Woodlawn Youth Solutions was largely the brainchild of eight-year Woodlawn resident Dorothy Pytel, who also is the impetus behind the community Brickyard Garden at 61st Street and Woodlawn Avenue. Pytel received support from many organizations throughout the city, as well as the University’s Office of Community and Government Affairs and the Civic Knowledge Project.

The teens focused on the renovation of seven large, concrete planters, originally located at 62nd Street and Ingleside Avenue. The planters were once gray and dilapidated, and their contents all but dead. But after six weeks of work, they were adorned with the vibrant colors of the teens’ artwork and filled with fresh perennial plants. With the support of Willie Cochran, 20th Ward Alderman, the planters were relocated throughout Woodlawn to serve as community markers.

University Support

The University played an important part in the success of the program, said Sonya Malunda, Assistant Vice President of Community and Government Affairs, who encouraged Pytel to meet with community leaders and teenagers to move the project forward. “Above all, I provided support early on and encouraged Pytel, the leadership of Christ Way, and archi-treasures to make the program a reality. I hope it continues. Our youth need productive things to do.”

Bart Schultz, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy and Director of the Civic Knowledge Project, arranged for University interns Alisa Robinson, a rising third-year, and Rodney Lee, AB,’02, MS, ’08, to assist with the project. Schultz also provided guidance and program T-shirts for the participants.

“The program gave me an unexpected realization that the only way for me to become and remain an outsider to Woodlawn, or any other neighborhood, is by choice,” said Robinson.

Lee added, “It was a great way for some teens to do something positive and productive during the summer. It also turned those neglected planters into something useful and beautiful.”

Additionally, University police provided a security presence for the youths while they traveled throughout Woodlawn and worked on the original planters.

Teens Part of the Solution

Pytel’s late son, Felix, inspired her to develop the youth program. Before his death last year, Felix had suffered from a neurological condition that caused problems with his vision, hearing, and ability to swallow. “I realized that these kids are disabled too,” Pytel said. “While my son’s disabilities were physical, they are disabled by a lack of resources.

“A lot of people see local black teens as problems. I thought we should call it Woodlawn Youth Solutions to show this isn’t the case.”

Chantrel Lee, Kishon Beard, and Angel White, three of the teen participants, talked about other elements of the Woodlawn environment that could be beautified by a program like Woodlawn Youth Solutions. Said Chantrel, “The murals, the streets, everything–this neighborhood is ‘triflin.’ ”

Kishon disagreed. “I think you’re exaggerating. I think this place is coming together.”

Schultz echoed the sentiment: “Woodlawn is rapidly becoming a model of what an urban community can do to build a greener and better life for its citizens, and we should all be inspired by this exemplary effort.”

There are plans to beautify even more planters in the coming years. To ensure that the planters are maintained, archi-treasures is seeking donors to adopt them. Interested parties may call 773.772.4416 or email info@architreasures.org.

Originally published on September 15, 2008.