GROWING UP IN EAST GARFIELD PARK

Otis grew up as a middle child among six other siblings. When he wasn’t fighting his brothers over the last slice of pizza or debating with his sisters over who got to use the bathroom first, Otis spent a lot of time being active around the community.

But growing up in Garfield Park presented a set of issues he felt weren’t nearly as prominent in other areas of the city.

“Sometimes we have to travel so far out of the neighborhood,” Otis said. “You got to travel downtown or up north… just to find a decent grocery store. We lose a lot of mom and pops stores just because we don’t have the resources to help keep it around.”

He credits his mother for her dedication in working hard enough to support seven children, but said it was his older siblings that got him ready for school each day. As they matured, their mother worried about who and what Otis would associate with without the family’s guidance.

MENTORS

Always interested in sports and competition, Otis joined the Breakthrough flag football team when he was 11. Through his initial interest in sports, Otis was introduced to various arts and crafts, enrichment programs, bible study, and a vast network of positive male role models.

“You really got to know people on a personal level,” he said. “I remember going to Kevin’s house, Bill’s house and Dave’s house. Even when Breakthrough wasn’t open, I could hit them up any time and have them come through to play video games or just to talk.”

Otis seemingly spent as much time with his mentors outside of the program hours as he did during programs. He said his Breakthrough mentors played a major role in him reaching the goals he’s set for his life.

“[Breakthrough] was kinda like my momma,” he said. “The biggest thing for my mom is that you aren’t going to sit in her house and do nothing. With her busy and working, and my older brother and sister going off into their own thing, it was almost like my mom needed someplace for me to go.”

“In my house, there were no male figures. So having mentors that I could go to made me feel like I had big brothers that I could relate to… there was only so much my mom could do”

DREAMS FULFILLED

Before Breakthrough broke ground on the FamilyPlex in 2015, teens like Otis were the major drivers in its conception. Breakthrough Chief Program Officer Bill Curry noted that the young people were focused on the community and helping others in their situation.

“It started with a few milestones,” he said. “The first milestone was a conversation with a handful a teenagers who lived in this neighborhood on Carroll, Fulton and Walnut streets in 2001. What they started discussing was a dream to have a youth center, but they also wanted a place for the entire family to feel welcome and at home.”

When the FamilyPlex was built in 2015, Otis joined one of the tours of the facility and was impressed with how Breakthrough brought the dreams of the youth to life. He talked to staff members and asked if there were any opportunities to join its staff. Curry, describing Otis as a deeply compassionate youth, said Otis practically hired himself.

“I think I first met Otis when he was in the fourth or fifth grade. I remember him having a very steady personality, a very thoughtful personality and he was a person that wanted to see his entire community improve — not just his own life,” Curry said.

But Otis isn’t the only member of his family involved in the Breakthrough network. His daughter graduated from the Beginners program and is now in the afterschool program that his wife works at as an assistant teacher.

As more and more residents, children, and businesses utilize the FamilyPlex, Otis’ dream is realized. As he looks to the future of what the building can mean to the community, he hopes the youth that participated in its programming will be encouraged to help lead the FamilyPlex as they become professionals.

“I hope that we can see our children eventually in leadership positions,” Otis said. “Sometimes, you have to see that image in order to believe it. If our kids see more people who look like them, being positive in the community and running things… that will be great for the community and Breakthrough.”

For Curry, the FamilyPlex is a great start but he said a neighborhood like East Garfield Park deserves many opportunities for families and children to gather and develop.

“When you look at thriving communities, they consistently invest in the next generation,” he said. “And they create spaces where the next generation can chase their hopes and dreams and develop their talents. In East Garfield Park, there are some places like that but not nearly enough for the volume of kids that live here. [The FamilyPlex] helps bring significant capacity for families to support the hopes and dreams of their kids.”