Voices of children chanting planetary systems and giggles of girls dancing to jazz tunes filled the small studio owned by Asian Youth Services (AYS), a non-profit organization located in a rundown Albany Park neighborhood. Minors, ages three to 18, attend the daily summer school for free meals and enrichment programs.
Executive director Shari Fenton started AYS in 1992 to accommodate the needs of Southeast Asian refugee families fleeing from genocide and war in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Since then, AYS has offered enrichment classes and meals for disadvantaged youth for more than 20 years.
Fenton’s non-profit organization now serves at-risk students of all cultures and ethnicity, providing a safe haven for neighborhood kids from gang violence, drugs, teen pregnancy and hunger. In addition to providing daily meals, AYS offers free guitar and drums lessons, science and dance classes as well as taekwondo training.
Mad Science of Chicago, science franchise that offers after-school enrichment programs and summer camps, provides interactive science classes for AYS. Mad Science has worked with AYS for several years now as a part of outreach program with discounted sessions.
Margaret Dunn, a Mad Science teacher who has worked with AYS for four years, believes that lack of resources should not exclude certain children and teens from educational opportunities.
“We really believe in trying remind them that, ‘Yes, you can. You are smart enough to understand this. I don’t know what you’re hearing elsewhere, but we believe that you are absolutely bright enough to understand this and make something out of it,’” Dunn said. “And we’re trying to push this idea because it’s true. They are.”
The AYS students closely and enthusiastically followed Dunn’s instructions as she presented them with a toy model of the solar system to work on. Rather than a dull lecture on astronomy, Dunn’s lesson was filled with fun, science-based toys and kinesthetic learning experience. At the end of the session, Dunn exclaimed how productive the class was, and how fast they finished the work compared to other kids in public schools.
“What’s wonderful about these kids is that they help each other, they treat each other like family, and they’re grateful for the experiences,” Dunn said. “A lot of times when you’re at the posher schools, kids are inundated with opportunities and options so it’s not as exciting for them and you know, they could take it or leave it. But these kids just don’t get that opportunity. So it’s nice to see them blossoming through these tiny interactions.”
“I used to be one of the kids that she helped out,” On said. “It’s a good place for kids to stay out of trouble. That’s what we’ve been doing here as little kids—staying out of trouble.”
To Fenton, it is not enough to just give free meals and fun lectures. She makes it her own responsibility to see them through their education and growth in what she believes is a broken public school system. With a scholarship program that currently sends 35 children and teens to private schools, Fenton makes high quality education a priority for disadvantaged youth.
“We have one kid who is dyslexic, and when he was in public school and they kept telling him he was a troublemaker and he was stupid,” Fenton said. “The kid is not stupid—he’s dyslexic. And instead of calling him names they should have tested him to see what the problem was. And they didn’t, which happens a lot.”
With Fenton’s help, the student got tested for dyslexia. He then attended a program at DePaul University that works with dyslexic kids, after which Fenton enrolled him into a private school.
“When he was in the third grade, this ‘stupid kid’ dictated a 10-chapter book to his tutor, and we got it published,” Fenton said. “These kids are not stupid. Public schools are sometimes just outrageous.”
To many students at AYS, Fenton’s efforts are heartfelt. They see AYS as their second home.
“I love sitting here and talking with my friends. Most of them have been here for a while,” said Jennifer Sem, 13, who has attended AYS for seven years. “I live pretty far, but it’s good coming here. It’s worth it.”
Even newcomers to AYS feel immediately attached to the warm, welcoming atmosphere and the caring embrace of Fenton.
“My cousins kept saying that this was a really good place,” said Yareli Becerril, 8, who has been coming to AYS for two weeks. “And they were going to give us school supplies and take us on field trips, so I decided that Shari was a really good person so I wanted to come here.”
Others, like the 18-year-old Evelyn Perez, stick around AYS to become role models and tutors for children just like them.
“I like helping the little kids. Helping them with homework and walking them through parks. It’s fun,” Perez said. “There are some kids here that don’t have that much in their lives, so [Shari] helps them get what they need to go to school and things. It’s like a second home.”
Fenton has seen hundreds of students and families go through her care at AYS, and she sees the changes they undergo once they receive proper resources and care.
“I like to see them succeed at school and feel good about themselves and get the message that they could be whatever they want to be when they grow up,” Fenton said. “And also be compassionate human beings and take care of each other.”