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U.N.I.T.Y Squad: Where youth can be their unique selves

If you visit Claretian Associates’ SALUD Center on a Tuesday afternoon, you’d see youth from the U.N.I.T.Y Squad gather for friendship and fun in a safe and supportive atmosphere.

The U.N.I.T.Y Squad, a sub program of the South Chicago Neighborhood Network, of which Advocate Health Care is a partner, is a year-round program that provides leadership and development skills for youth, ages 14-17, and stands for United Network Influencing the Transformation of Youth. Tiarra Owens, Program Manager with Claretian, began the U.N.I.T.Y. Squad in 2018.

The program has four core curriculum components:

  • Leadership – learning development skills
  • Trauma-informed – learning the effects and ways to cope with trauma
  • Civic engagement – serving the community
  • Workforce and college preparedness – visiting colleges and exploring career options, interviewing, preparing resumes, etc.

“The main goal of the program is to help youth be leaders in their communities, homes, and schools,” said Pamesha Robinson, Youth and Family Program Coordinator for Claretian, who helps oversee the program. “The program offers a safe and therapeutic place where youth can go to be their unique selves and learn how to navigate this world.”

Learning about mental health and trauma-informed care are important components of the program, she says.

For example, youth take Mental Health First Aid training and participate in meditation and mindfulness activities.

“It’s hard growing up today with bullying, peer pressure, and the pressures from social media, Pamesha said. “When they come here, they turn off their phones.  We want them to be present in the moment. The mindfulness activities help them be present with themselves and those they encounter in their family, school, and community.”

Through the program, youth have participated in a variety of other activities, such as:

  • a six-week nutrition education program through the University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana Food Nutrition Extension Program, which includes cooking demonstrations and provides each student with a cookbook, cooking utensils and a certificate.
  • an intergenerational gardening project, working with seniors in planting, tending, and harvesting fruits and vegetables
  • a mock trial competition through the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office
  • employment and internships through One Summer Chicago
  • money management and financial literacy training

“We work hard to support our youth and make sure they have every opportunity afforded to them,” Pamesha said. “If you pour just a little bit into them, you are going to see so much more in return.”

And for those who have graduated from the program: “It’s an amazing feeling to have them come back and say hi and give us a hug,” she said.

Pamesha began her role with Claretian in January 2022 with the goal of making a positive impact on youth living in her community. She has found it gratifying to walk alongside them on a weekly basis as they learn, grow and bond through the program.

“I love that the youth believe enough in me to want to engage and communicate openly and freely with me,” she said. “That they trust enough in me to want to follow the program. That lets me know I am doing my job!”

A joint project of Advocate Health Care & the OCEAN-HP at the University of Illinois at Chicago.