Every day, the staff at UCC-related UCAN in Chicago works hard to help teens turn their lives around through counseling, advocacy, family and individual social service programs, youth leadership development, and education. But on June 6 at UCAN’s 20th annual Youth Leadership Awards, the staff and the wider Chicago community had the chance to hear from some of the youth whose lives have been positively influenced by UCAN.
The evening — not only a signature annual event, but also a special celebration during UCAN’s 150th anniversary year — included impactful speeches by the youth award recipients as well as touching video presentations.
“The most impactful part of the evening was the youth awards,” in which each winner’s introduction video was shown and then that youth gave his or her acceptance speech, says Carly Hanson, UCAN’s development coordinator. “This is the part of the evening where guests hear the youth’s stories, passions and dreams in their own words. It is incredibly moving to hear the stories of resilience and visions, and rarely leaves a dry eye in the house.”
This year’s awardees included Jamya Crayton, the John E. Rooney Dynamic Scholarship winner; and Youth Leadership Award winners Brion Williams, Gay Dut, Jakarie Gates, and Evelyn Mondragon. The Rooney scholarship was established in 2004 by U.S. Cellular to honor the award namesakes’ dedication to leadership and pursuit of giving back to young people in need.
“So far, [the Rooney] scholarship has given 17 young people the chance to pursue their dreams of a college education, and the opportunity to become successful leaders of tomorrow,” former recipient Terrance Lindsey told attendees. “I am a proud recipient of this scholarship and want you all to know it is going to great use toward my nursing degree at Michigan State University.”
Because of the anniversary year, many previous winners and UCAN alumni returned for the awards, Hanson adds. “There was a beautiful moment where all the alumni joined our President and CEO Zack Schrantz on stage.”
Attendees also included Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). The evening included the awarding of the John D. Nichols Impact Award, received this year by David Casper, US CEO of BMO Financial Group. During his acceptance speech, Casper surprised the audience by announcing an additional $25,000 donation in celebration of BMO’s 25-year partnership with UCAN.
“To be recognized by an organization that has been preventing violence, healing trauma, and empowering our youth in Chicago neighborhoods for 150 years is truly a great honor,” Casper told attendees.
In preparation for the awards, the youth recipients worked with UCAN staff on speech preparation and delivery. “As someone who personally works closely with the youth every year, I would say that the YLA awards are so important because these scholarships can be the difference between a youth going to college or not,” says Hanson. “I see the pride and confidence truly come out of the youth every year. The difference between when I first met them … and when I see them give their final speech at the awards is startling. Shy youth come out of their shells into powerful, proud young adults, and those already confident emerge as future leaders.”
Evelyn Mondragon, a 2019 recipient, concurs. “I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety in 2016 … so because I know how it feels to doubt yourself, I was able to observe peers in my school and know how to encourage them and relate to them,” Mondragon told the packed room in Chicago’s Four Seasons Hotel. “I am proud to stand here today and say I am editor of my school’s newsletter. I was president of our social justice club. I’ve turned my whole life around and I am strong.”
But perhaps award winner Brion Williams summed it up best: “Thank you, UCAN, for everything you have done for me. It’s true! Kids who suffer trauma CAN become our future leaders.
“It’s not about where you start … it’s about where you finish.”