Take any tough inner city neighborhood, throw in peer pressure and a touch of desperation, and the outcome would be similar. This time, the town is Chicago and the young man named William. After developing an affinity for marijuana, William dropped out of high school, joined a gang and started selling drugs. Forced to make a heart-wrenching choice, his family asked him to leave home.
Although his life was spiraling out of control, William took a few stabs at getting back on track. He enrolled in a G.E.D. program and tried to quit drugs, but the temptation was too strong. William spent nights in abandoned buildings or with friends, including J.J., a former grade-school classmate.
One day, J.J. invited his friend to attend an evening Bible study run by a ministry called Breakthrough. William reluctantly went "because he'd given me clothes and a place to stay." He didn't know how dramatically his life was about to change.
The East Garfield Park section of Chicago tallied 71 drug-related murders and 300 violent crimes in a recent year. Homelessness and drug-related activity are visible to the casual observer. Close to 46 percent of the households are below the poverty line; 49 percent of the residents have not graduated from high school, and more than 70 percent of the families are headed by a single parent.
In the middle of this troubled landscape, Breakthrough’s Youth Outreach program reaches out to children facing pressure from gangs, drugs, violence and promiscuity. Many come from broken homes with few role models to follow, so staff and volunteers strive to build a safety net around the kids.
“The crux of it is that we want to connect caring, Christian adults in a network fashion around the kids in our neighborhood and their families,” says youth outreach director Bill Curry. “Everything we do, we do as a vehicle for adults to build relationships with kids.”
Breakthrough operates several programs for youth including a basketball league, academic assistance, Bible Study groups, gardening classes, summer camp and more.
According to Curry, growth has been explosive over the past three years. Close to 300 youth have access to opportunities that nurture and encourage personal development and academic enrichment. Parents and family members welcome Breakthrough as a partner to support the growth and well-being of their children. “We’ve had parents come to Christ, even as recently as Sunday evening,” Curry adds.
Over the last six to nine months, a total of nine people accepted Christ as their savior, says Curry. “Six of the nine were African American males between the ages of 15 and 20, guys who really had to correct their course.
“But it’s not something we push,” Curry explains. “We always tell people, ‘We’re here to answer any questions you might have. We can spend time with you individually studying the Bible, but everything you are going to do in your relationship with Christ has to be based on your desire, not on ours.’”
Approximately 110 volunteers commit to helping each week. “About 20 to 25 volunteers actually live in East Garfield Park,” Curry says. “They have either moved here as a result of being involved with the kids and wanted to be neighbors with the families in the community, or they are people that God already had here.
“It’s been really exciting to see what God is doing,” Curry adds. “It is purely God and we get to experience it.”
Other programs run by Breakthrough include Bridges of Hope, which is an outreach to women in prostitution; the Joshua Center, which provides emergency overnight shelter for women, as well as meals and case management; and the North Side day center, which provides support for homeless men.
Breakthrough Urban Ministries was founded in 1992 by Arloa Sutter and members of the First Evangelical Free Church as a response to homeless persons in the Edgewater and Uptown neighborhoods of Chicago who were seeking assistance. At first, Breakthrough focused on meeting a very basic need of homeless persons by serving coffee and daily lunches in a small storefront room. By the end of the year, Breakthrough received its non-profit status.
Learn more the mission and history of Breakthrough at www.breakthroughministries.com/