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“Youth who have suffered trauma can become our future leaders.” This is the vision UCAN has for the young people in the communities it serves on the West Side of Chicago. The mission is to provide youth with life-changing programs that educate and empower them and their families. Besides impactful programming, UCAN offers “consistent presence and unrivaled diversity and inclusion.”
UCAN has been serving Chicago communities for 153 years. It began as a WWII orphanage in 1869. It was launched by a German family named Uhlich. The family attended St. Paul’s Church and established the Uhlich Evangelical Lutheran Children’s Asylum. The orphanage served the community for 60 years. Then it became more of a social service agency and a group home for children who were in foster care.
The home became known as the Uhlich Children’s Home. It continued to grow and offer more services and became the Uhlich Children’s Advantage Network, and later became simply UCAN.
Claude Robinson is the UCAN Executive Vice President of Youth Development and Diversity. He oversees government affairs at the local, state, and national levels. In addition, he handles community relations, corporate affairs, the nine-tier DEI program, the Office of Faith and Community Health, the North Lawndale Athletic and Recreation Association, and the volunteer and mentoring programs for the organization.
Last year, UCAN served and impacted over 21,000 youth and families on Chicago’s West Side and various neighboring communities.
UCAN’s clinical philosophy is built on cognitive behavior therapy and mental health. This philosophy allows the agency to meet youth and families where they are and assess the needs necessary to move forward in all programs at an optimal level. In support of the clinical philosophy, all UCAN staff must undergo at least 20 hours of training. This covers mental health concepts like abandonment, attachment, positive youth development, and more. “[The clinical philosophy] is woven throughout the organization. [This impacts] how we serve our young people and how we show up in the communities,” Robinson said.
UCAN regularly evaluates its approach in order to eliminate gaps in services. This helps them to better serve the community. Ninety-one percent of those they served last year were African American and 6% were Hispanic, reported Robinson. “We have to have a cultural lens on what we do. Some of our white-identified therapists noticed…gap[s] and also wanted to improve their ability to relate from a cultural perspective. So we spent the last one-and-a-half years revamping our philosophy and looking at trying to add more cultural discussions. Then [we] look[ed] at the history of racism from a public health standpoint and how that impacts our clientele. [It] also insur[ed] our staff had a wider context as they are relating and providing those services in [the] community and also with our young people.”
The agency provides both traditional and non-traditional counseling services. UCAN also provides telehealth services.
Robinson has an internal and external focus and has to be out in the communities UCAN serves for most of his time. He works with non-profit organizations, the government, and philanthropic organizations seeking opportunities that would benefit UCAN and the non-profit sector. Robinson also works with organizations to address obstacles that could prevent youth and families from receiving services.
UCAN wants to come into a community, revitalize it, add value to it, and “be a great neighbor.” The agency has a “plan to engage, educate, and then empower. They seek to work with five stakeholders: elected officials, the faith community,…other non-profits within the community, businesses, and adjacent neighbors to the campus.” This approach was used in the North Lawndale community, where UCAN’s headquarters is housed, to ensure that its residents know who UCAN is, what they do, and what they do not do.
UCAN Success Stories
Under extenuating circumstances, a young man at the age of 17 joined the Project Visible Man program. This is a group mentoring program for young men of color. The program helped this young man find his purpose in life and gave him the confidence he needed to succeed. The young man graduated from high school and won a Youth Leadership Award presented annually by UCAN. Then he went on to college. He is producing documentaries now in Harlem. He recently told Robinson that he wants to return home and produce documentaries on the West Side of Chicago.
Kemisha Swan went through the residential program. She was a participant for a long time, Robinson said. She is now a business owner. The agency stayed by her side and helped her build her BBQ sauce company. Swan’s “Perfect BBQ Sauce” can be found in Whole Foods and Target.
Robinson said, “Success is when the young people have a direction and they’re pursuing that direction and they continually look back and are appreciative of the investment [made] in them when they were younger.” UCAN has a “countless” number of success stories. These stories encourage Robinson.
UCAN does not want to be viewed as a charity, but as a “bridge to helping the social and moral fabric of the country. We are the ones who are there and have not given up. We want to connect with various communities to be involved in some way to help change the narrative for distressed and disinvested communities as well. When you look back at your own life and see how people invested in you, there were times you didn’t take it to heart, you took it for granted, but you got another chance and another chance until you figured it out. That’s what we’re trying to do with young people who have been pushed to the side of society. Not only young people but adults as well. We want to see that success, and have that add value to the country.”
Written by Jeanette Vietti
Interview: Claude Robinson March 31, 2022
Images Courtesy of UCAN – Used With Permission