President Obama addresses youth at Gary Comer Youth CenterPhotos and article by Gary Comer Youth Center

Alliance for Strong Families and Communities member Gary Comer Youth Center (GCYC) in Chicago recently hosted the Obama Foundation's first programming event and served as the perfect setting to inspire the participants to envision new opportunities for community impact. More than one hundred young people in Chicago gathered together to work through group exercises and workshops focused on inspiring change and growth. GCYC was the perfect backdrop for this full-day seminar focused on educating young people and developing skills to use their voices to come together to affect change. Given the youth center’s commitment to civic engagement and leadership development, hosting the Obama Foundation’s event seemed a natural fit with GCYC’s mission.

Toward the conclusion of the Training Day event, attendees were presented with an unforgettable surprise when former President Barack Obama took the stage to share some insight on the day’s topics. “I realized the best way for me to have an impact is to train the next generation of leaders, so I am passing the baton,” he said as he spoke to the participants.

A key takeaway from Obama’s speech relished the importance of the personal narrative. Sharing one’s story aids with coping, as well as serves as a platform for creating action towards change. “I learned that a single narrative does not and will not define my story,” said De-Aundra Kerby. Kerby hails from the Grand Crossing neighborhood, where the Gary Comer Youth Center is located and where she’s been an active member since age 14. As a participant in the Training Day, she worked with a small group of peers tackling the issues of violence in communities.

Obama meets with youth at Gary Comer Youth Center

The former president continued to note the significance of understanding one’s own story to better serve the greater society. Connecting to the community on a personal level aids in one’s ability to understand the issues and seek solutions to resolve them.

“The workshops pushed us to be open minded and think beyond what is in front of us,” Kerby said. Each workshop focused on an issue within the community and were challenged to propose a solution. This step, forging tangible solutions to real issues, is the mission that the Obama Foundation hopes to impress on coming generations.

Another young participant was Breana Brown. She grew up in the South Chicago neighborhood, was raised by her grandmother, and became involved with GCYC in 2008 when seeking guidance for a safe high school experience.  She attended Gary Comer College Prep and graduated as part of the inaugural class of 2012.

She spent evenings and weekends participating in various programs the youth center offers, including mentoring younger students. Upon graduation, Brown attended Illinois State University, where she earned a bachelor’s in English studies. She currently works in the Student Affairs Department at National Lewis University and is seeking to obtain her master's in student affairs with dreams of becoming a president of a university one day.

The youth center has had a vast impact on Brown’s career ambitions and her passion for education. Her passion for seeking change within the South Side community led her to apply for the Obama Foundation’s position as a Training Day Peer Advisor. She was selected for this leadership role and was deeply inspired by the president’s words. “He and Mrs. Obama are working closely to help empower us to be the voice and change for our communities. This gives us hope,” she said.

Obama greets youth at Gary Comer Youth CenterAnother participant, Kymonee Cannon describes the experience of meeting Obama as a blessing. “I understand now that I need to band together with like-minded people to accomplish my goals,” Cannon said about her peer team as they worked together on the topic of discrepancies in the education system.

The message of community impact rang heavy as each group worked in tandem with one another to take on a current issue affecting society. Looking at the room of young leaders, working together and discussing how to better the community, it clearly reflected the mission of the Obama Foundation and the Training Day initiative: to provide the next generations with the skills and tools necessary to create change within their communities.

About Gary Comer Youth Center
The Gary Comer Youth Center (GCYC) opened in 2006 and provides a safe and supportive environment for youth after school, on weekends and during school. The mission is to ensure all students graduate high school prepared for college and careers. GCYC is committed to developing the full potential, talent and skill of young people from grade school through college graduation. The youth center, located on Chicago’s South Side, is the cornerstone of the Comer Education Campus.