Program Profile: Gary Comer Youth Center Connects Families, Communities, and Schools

The Gary Comer Youth Center 21st CCLC is at the intersection of schools, families, and communities. The 21st CCLC uses its space, programming, and communication to cultivate a sense of community among its students, families, school staff, and community members.

A good number of the students who participate in the 21st CCLC do not live in the same neighborhood as the afterschool program or the school the program serves, Gary Comer College Prep High School. This presents a challenge when trying to build relationships and support for the students. As program administrator Ayoka Samuels notes, the families, community organizations, and schools who are in the neighborhood have a different sense of what community is. The 21st CCLC aims to address this challenge by bringing different partners together to strengthen relationships and support student learning. The afterschool program also tries to get all stakeholders on the same page, which results in a greater sense of community that includes people who live in the neighborhood and the broader South Side of Chicago.

The Gary Comer Youth Center facility itself is well-suited for students, their families, community members, and school staff to gather, network, and build relationships. The 80,000-square-foot building is one of the largest in the neighborhood. It allows the 21st CCLC to offer activities for family and community members throughout the week and on weekends, as well as to host special events on holidays. “Students, parents, and the community get a chance to mingle and build relationships. This is one of the key components of building a strong community,” says Samuels. 

The building also provides an additional vehicle for school staff to forge ties with families and community members. Gary Comer College Prep High School uses the organization’s space to host classes and provide food service. Both 21st CCLC- and school-hosted activities have fostered greater family engagement in their student’s education. “Many of our parents start out by coming to an event or a fitness class or two,” says Samuels. “From there, several want to make a greater investment, so they join the school parent council. In some cases, they sit on the council for several years.” 

In addition to offering a supportive physical environment where different stakeholders can build relationships, the 21st CCLC is intentional with its programming and communication. The program has a designated liaison from Gary Comer College Prep, whose responsibilities include promoting the 21st CCLC and other activities at the school. Staff from the 21st CCLC and high school collaborate closely on issues related to youth safety and discipline. They also align afterschool and expanded-time programming with school instruction and students’ academic needs. One such example includes one-on-one college counseling that the 21st CCLC provides for high school seniors. 

The 21st CCLC also engages community organizations through programs like urban agriculture and a broadcast journalism program. These programs allow students to learn about their community while exploring career options, which also helps students see a practical application for what they learn at school. 

While the different 21st CCLC partners recognize the importance of aligning goals and activities, Samuels notes that ongoing communication to balance the needs and schedules of so many different partners is crucial. “We listen for what [the school] needs, and we communicate how we think we can address that need. The tough part is [when] you actually get going with the program,” says Samuels. “Sometimes competing priorities will result in a dip in participation for a day or for a particular program. We work to constantly communicate with each other when this happens so we can be better coordinated around timing of things as well as keeping our commitments and agreements.”  

For afterschool programs that want to strengthen connections between schools and family and community members, Samuels encourages them to leverage all resources: time, space, and staff. She points out that small investments can eventually yield big results. “If you do a little something for the community now, over time it can grow into a whole lot later,” she says. “It takes time. You do need to be intentional and consistent, but you will eventually see the positive results.”