Creating Opportunities for Youth in Little Village

For over 30 years, Central States SER, a workforce development and education organization in Little Village, has helped thousands of individuals achieve their academic and career goals to improve their quality of life. For Youth Program Manager Adrean Vargas, his connection to the organization spans back to his own youth.

“I grew up in Pilsen with these types of afterschool programs, including Saturday and summer school programs. They were my life saviors, my escape and where I felt safe,” said Adrean, who participated in GED programming at SER as a teenager. “Being part of the LGBTQ community, I made it my mission to create those safe spaces for people like me who need an escape from home. My job is to make a safe environment where everyone feels comfortable.”

SER works with individuals of all age ranges, as it offers various workforce development programs, such as job training and financial coaching, and youth programs ranging from mentorship to summer employment for teens.

“As the youth program manager, I oversee and manage all youth-related initiatives. I like hiring people from all walks of life who are not only talented, but passionate about the work. It’s important for the youth we work with to see themselves represented in our organization because they’re able to see us model healthy relationships, conflict resolution and disagreements. It feels like we do the work together as a family,” said Adrean. “Many of us had an adult in our life who helped us navigate through the difficult circumstances we went through when we were younger. Thanks to them, we are in a place where we are optimistic about the future and what it might hold.”

"I love when we get to work with youth who come in believing it's the end of the world and they have no options, like it's over and they’ve just given up. We get to work with them and six months later, you have a youth who has earned their GED, has a full-time job, and is envisioning their future differently. That is the best part because I was there once. I feel like a lot of our team members were also in that place at one point in time when they were young. We remind ourselves about that all the time when we ask ourselves “why do we do this again?” Because we were there once."

In addition to providing residents with academic and workforce resources and support, the team at SER holds strong connections with organizations in the community that specialize in other areas, like community organizing. Along with challenges posed by the pandemic, tensions were high between Black and Brown residents of the Little Village community after protests and looting took place around the city following the tragic murder of George Floyd in May 2020. The relationships and bonds developed across agencies and residents from North Lawndale through Little Village ultimately helped unify the community.

“It shook our community to the core. Our community partners, ENLACE and New Life Centers, came out to mediate conflict between the different gangs and explain what they were really doing. They had a meeting, had a truce, and started marching together. It was meant to unify and bring everyone together,” added Adrean. “We all joined forces to create miracles in the community.”

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