Breaking the Cycle of Urban Poverty with Deanna Hallagan and LaToya Winters

On April 6, 2016, I sat down with Deanna Hallagan and LaToya Winters at Marillac House in East Garfield Park to talk about their work with children growing up on Chicago’s West Side and how the Hope Junior program is fighting to break the cycle of urban poverty.

Deanna Hallagan has directed the Hope Junior program at Marillac House for over 20 years. She has been connected to Marillac since childhood when her mother started Project Hope, a teen motherhood support program. Hope Junior began soon after as a pregnancy prevention program for young women, but has since grown into a coeducational after school program for children in Kindergarten through 8th grade.

LaToya Winters was a member of the Hope Junior program as a child growing up in East Garfield Park. After graduating from Northern Illinois with a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology and a Minor in Family and Child Studies, she returned to Marillac House as a Youth Worker for the Hope Junior program. She is currently working toward her Master’s Degree in Social Work at DePaul University.

The children with whom you work deal with very adult issues from a young age. How do you work to keep their childhoods intact?

Deanna Hallagan: I think kids really do want the chance to be kids, and there are so many things in our world now that force them to not be. It breaks the bubble and shatters what illusions they have. But I think they really want the chance to be kids and to have fun. Their resilience, at least in my experience, is incredible—the humor, the sense of fun. Kids need the opportunity to have fun even if something is not going well in the outside world. I think that’s what we try to provide.

A lot of times we take kids out of the neighborhood. I actually have a camp in Wisconsin that my husband and I have worked on starting. We do a lot of different overnights up there to remove everyone from the neighborhood and watch their defenses go down. To watch them really just be kids, it’s so important—trips to the zoo, trips to the swimming pool, all of those things are so important for what makes your childhood your childhood. And they still have to happen; I think they need to happen in order for people to keep their sanity. The amount of violence that our kids see is just off the charts. I’m not only talking about violence in our streets, but the violence in everything. I think kids really need the opportunity to be in places where they can be silly and have fun. I know that might not sound groundbreaking or earth shattering, but it’s the truth, and kids really do thrive when they have a chance to see what’s out there.

You raise these children through the Hope Junior program, and then hire them back as adults to work and be role models for the next generation. Can you talk about why that has been so successful?

Deanna Hallagan: I think that’s our most successful piece. Right now, we have 10 young people working for us, and all of them have gone through the program in one way or another. It’s a real visual for the kids to see that these [young people] are all in college, or about to go to college. It’s such a visual to be able to say, “They did it. When they were kids, they were here.” I think that says way more than anyone could ever say with words or ideas. They’re here. They encourage kids. [The kids] all know them from the neighborhood, too. Our young people do know what it’s like, and exactly what [they] are feeling, exactly the obstacles that they’re facing. This is more than a job, and I’ve seen the commitment that they make, and that has been huge. They’re cycle breakers. I think that they’re the ones that are making the change, and they are not the statistic.

How important do you think it is that you are originally from the community and now are back working in the community?

LaToya Winters: That’s at the heart. Who better than myself? I’ve lived through this. I’ve been through it. I know from first-hand experience what it’s been like. That’s why I’ve always tried to stick with my community and be a voice for my community, in my community. I think it’s definitely important so [the kids] will be able to see that I’ve lived through it. And it’s not like I’ve been here, and then I’m gone. I’ve been here, and I’m always here.

What insights from Marillac House should policymakers use to improve outcomes for urban youth? What kinds of policies would be most beneficial?

Deanna Hallagan: I think giving jobs to young people working with other young people could be the most beneficial, with training involved in it. I think that’s where our resources lie. That’s one of our greatest resources, the young people. There are so many levels of issues—the violence, unemployment, education, health. We have to find some sort of way to come together from different sectors to try to find some solutions. You think about those jobs programs in the 1930s that made a big difference, like the Works Progress Administration. Something like that, but more like an American Peace Corps that draws from a mix of people from different communities. But I’d love to see a lot of kids here getting those jobs. I love what our kids are able to do here, but it’s always a constant source of, “How are we going to pay for this? Is this worth it?” To me, it’s the most worth it thing that we’re doing.

Featured Photo: cc/(SerrNovik, photo ID: 71403191, from iStock by Getty Images)

Sarah Guminski
Sarah ('17) is a staff writer for Urban Affairs. She is interested in urban social policy.

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