Proyecto Cuídate Empowers Students with Tools for Healthy, Successful Lives

May 27, 2016 | Chicago, IL

Peace Circle Activity

Corkery Elementary School students participate in a peace circle during which they focus on building relationships and gaining skills for self-advocacy, problem solving and conflict resolution. FILE PHOTO

It is four o’clock on Monday afternoon and classes let out an hour ago at Daniel J. Corkery School in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood. In a third-floor classroom reserved for an after-school youth leadership program, a group of fifteen sixth- and seventh-grade students gathers to participate in a peace circle to begin the day’s activities.

One at a time, the students pass a talking piece—a relatively small, smooth stone carved in the shape of a frog—and take turns sharing how they’re feeling on a scale of 1 to 10. They explain why they feel that way, with responses ranging from having fun with friends (generally associated with a high mark on the scale) to experiencing anxiety over an upcoming test (typically a lower mark).

Today the peace circle is conducted by Solomon Martinez, a restorative justice facilitator for the Proyecto Cuídate program at Erie Neighborhood House, but the process seems to play out with little oversight from the adults in the room.

“One of the goals I have is to put the ball in their court, to give them the platform—and the confidence—to express themselves,” says Martinez, who first encountered the peace circle concept while working with displaced peoples in Peru. “We want to empower them so that they can continue to be the authors of their world and to give them the tools to solve their own problems.”

While simple enough, the premise and goal feel a bit daunting: Assemble a group of pre-adolescent youth, provide a framework and then ask them to talk about their feelings in hopes they’ll develop skills for self-advocacy, problem-solving and conflict resolution.

“Not a lot of people have confidence in the abilities these young people have,” says Martinez, but he points out that children often have a way of surprising adults with their capacity.

If anyone is familiar with the socio-emotional tools children can develop, it’s Martinez. He has collaborated with staff and students at Corkery—in addition to McCorkmick Elementary School, also in Little Village—to develop more restorative practices in the school setting for the past couple years, and their work is producing results.

“I wanted to join because I wanted to be a better person,” says Ashley Laracuente, a sixth-grade student participating in the youth leadership program at Corkery. She enjoys the peace circle activity and credits it with equipping her with skills that translate into real-life situations. “I can control myself,” she explains. “I have better ways to solve problems now.”

Seventh-grade student Brenda Martinez has had a similar experience. “I’ve learned more about listening to others,” she says while participating in a small group activity. “I feel like I communicate better.”

In addition to peace circles, the students engage in critical thinking and problem-solving activities adapted from real-life scenarios. They also spend considerable time exploring and trying to understand shared human experiences.

The success of this initiative didn’t happen overnight, and it was largely contingent upon building trust from the onset. “At first you could see that disconnect,” says Rosa Sanchez, community support coordinator for Proyecto Cuídate. She explains that not all of the students are in the same class during the school day, and that they displayed some apprehension about opening up to one another—not to mention the adult facilitators in the room.

“Getting the youth to share their stories and experiences is critical,” says Sanchez. “We had to ask ourselves, ‘How do you get the buy-in from the students and build that trust?’”

The peace circle has been a valuable component in that regard. “Most of these people I didn’t know before the program,” says Eddie Cruz, a seventh grade student who has attended Corkery since kindergarten but is a grade ahead of most of his fellow program participants.

Cruz talks about wanting to be a leader and help teach younger students about listening and showing respect to others, and he is eager to share about his experiences with others. “Some people might think it’s boring, but honestly I enjoy it,” he says of the peace circle activity. It’s a perspective most of the participants seem to share, judging by their level of engagement.

Solomon Martinez

Erie House restorative justice facilitator Solomon Martinez engages students in a peace circle activity. FILE PHOTO

“The objective of a peace circle is creating a format for building relationships,” explains Martinez, who has strived to equip teachers with the tools to recreate the practice in the classroom setting. He visits Corkery and McCormick each week to provide a critical level of support. “When we’re able to facilitate peace circles and restorative practices, children feel safe and cared for by their teachers. That’s a big transformation.”

The initiative has as an additional benefit which restorative justice practitioners frequently cite when advocating for increased funding for these sorts of programs. “If children learn to resolve conflict in a restorative way, that will help prevent them from entering the system,” says Emily Schwab, who as community social services manager co-directs the Proyecto Cuídate program alongside Sanchez.

That, she says, is significant to building communities that are safer and stronger—all while passing on a huge savings to taxpayers.

Proyecto Cuídate is largely funded by the Illinois Department for Children and Family Services (DCFS) and the Chicago Department of Public Health's Violence Prevention Initiative, and it includes case management, counseling services, workshops and trainings for parents and women’s empowerment programs. Schwab describes the program as a “small but mighty” presence in the Little Village community.

To demonstrate its impact, Schwab shares about a student at Corkery who also receives counseling services through Proyecto Cuídate at the Erie House site in Little Village. When the student was assigned detention for misconduct during the school day, Schwab’s colleagues negotiated an alternative discipline route that brought the student to Erie House after school for a counseling session to talk about what had happened. “We have a relationship with the school,” she explains, “and they know what we’re capable of.”

According to Sanchez, that sort of culture shift is the one the chief goals of Proyecto Cuídate. “Can we implement restorative practices rather than stick with more punitive approaches—in schools, in families and within the community?” she asks. “That’s what the hope is.”


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