Since 2014 Chicago Youth Opportunities Initiative (CYOI), a Chicago based non-profit organization, has provided youth in foster care with tools to achieve their chosen career paths and become self reliant adults. Brittiney Jones, Executive Director of CYOI, started the organization after realizing a lack of resources was available for Chicago youth who were not emotionally or financially supported by their birth parents. “There was not only limited funding for foster youth,” Jones explained. “But also there is a growing number of youth that are identified to be youth in care or homeless.” Jones said that her own life circumstances and experiences with similar challenges motivated her to launch CYOI.
According to The Illinois Department of Children & Family Services, a “Youth in Care” is defined as a child or youth that “The DCFS Guardianship Administrator has been awarded either temporary or permanent legal custody (wards), and have been placed by DCFS in Emergency Reception Centers (ERC, formerly known as shelters), with a foster parent, relative caregiver, in a residential facility or in a Youth Transitional Living Program.”
CYOI Co-Founder and Director of Youth Development, Alayna Washington partnered with Jones soon after the organization began its mission to empower foster youth in Chicago. Washington leads a team to help expand the curriculum and she is a spokesperson for the organization. She said CYOI provides academic mentorship, emotional support and assistance to foster youth to help them pursue their career goals.
In Youth Development sessions, CYOI provides youth the opportunity to reflect on positive and negative feelings they may be experiencing about their personal or academic pursuits. “That is our way of having a community conversation about things they would like to change or be changed,” Washington said. CYOI also assists youth in achieving their personal and academic goals by encouraging them to set specific goals they are responsible for achieving throughout the year. ”This year a lot of our students had goals to improve in their math classes,” Washington said. “A third of them increased their grades from a “D” to a “B” average”. Washington said CYOI is vital for foster youth in Chicago because some youth may exhibit negative behavior without frequent mentorship from positive role models.
Keishona Morris, who became a mentee in CYOI at age 14, said the organization helped her to secure an internship in engineering. She said her ideal career field is robotic and mechanical engineering. Morris explained that CYOI has prepared her for success in job interviewing and what clothing choices are acceptable and unacceptable in the workplace. CYOI also helped her to understand the job description for the engineering roles she is interested in pursuing. ”I would never have had a chance to improve my life without CYOI,” she said.