Boothies enjoy a meal with children from the Off the Streets Club.
Google "West Garfield Park" and Google will start to fill in "West Garfield Park crime," "West Garfield Park gangs," "West Garfield Park dangerous," and "West Garfield Park shooting." That's where the Boys & Girls Club, Off the Streets Club (OTSC), operates and where 25 Booth students spent the evening of Nov. 27. Booth's Giving Something Back club, led by Katie Arnold '14, organized the Thanksgiving Eve volunteer event. Booth students were able to get to know children over a Thanksgiving meal then had some fun on the dance floor. As the night went on, laughter echoed around the gym - especially after the sugar high from dessert set in. First year student Neil Ramchandani laughed and joked all night with his tablemates and was amazed at his new friends' ability to "hustle ham" from other students' unfinished plates.
When asked why they come, 16 year old Jerrol Stallworth and 14 year old Contrell Walker stated that "I come here because I want to be safe."
Founded in 1900, OTSC is Chicago's oldest Boys & Girls Club and serves more than 3,000 kids. The organization is housed in a kid-friendly complex in West Garfield Park and gives 4- to 18-year-old kids a place to do their homework or play computer games in the Learning Center; perform plays in the Performing Arts Center; dance, rollerskate, sing, and play musical instruments; express themselves through arts and crafts and woodshop; and more. Off The Street Club kids have mentors, tutors and role models; girls can experience real "girl power" and heightened self-esteem in the Girls Center, while boys and girls together can meet and interact safely and respectfully throughout the Club.
In the summer, OTSC kids get to trade in the violence and drugs of their neighborhood for cookouts, sing-alongs, swimming, hiking and horseback riding at Camp Mathieu. Around the nightly campfires the only things to fear are the ghost stories.
Chicago's advertising community is heavily involved with volunteering at OTSC. The story, although unverifiable, goes that one of the founders of OTSC had to go door-to-door for donations to keep OTSC from closing in the early 1900s. One day he knocked on the door of an advertising executive and his wife answered. She felt the cause was worthwhile and important so convinced her husband likewise. From there the industry's rest is history and leads us to Al Ramirez.
Al Ramirez is a copywriter at an ad agency and has been the third Thursday event volunteer coordinator for the past two years after volunteering for the previous five years on his own. The third Thursday of every month he comes with a group of volunteers to OTSC's facility. He has loved becoming more involved with the organization. "My favorite part is seeing these kids grow up and some of them even going off to college," Ramirez says, although one of the students he tutored was shot and killed last year.
The stark reality and importance of OTSC's work lies in the fact that the gym windows and bridge that connects the two buildings are bulletproof.
West Garfield Park
West Garfield Park is a neighborhood about a 15-minute drive west of The Loop.
This 1.29 square mile neighborhood has seen 502 incidents of violent crimes (homicide, assault, battery, robbery, criminal sexual assault) and 1,983 narcotics cases in the past year.
No high school diploma: 26.2% (Chicago: 20.6%)
Age, under 18 or over 64: 42.5% (Chicago: 34%)
Per-capital income: $10,951 (Chicago: $27,148)
Households below poverty level: 40.3% (Chicago: 18.7%)
Unemployed: 25.2% (Chicago: 11.1%)
Area: 1.29 sq. mi
Source: Chicago Tribune