NORTH LAWNDALE — My Block My Hood My City Founder Jahmal Cole has gained national headlines for taking teens from the South and West sides to different parts of Chicago they've never been to.
But over the weekend, he showed Chicago teens a world even farther away: Washington D.C.
For the group of 17 teens from Collins Academy High School, at 1313 S. Sacramento Dr., the trip was their first visit to the nation's capital.
For more than half of the group, this was their first time on an airplane.
“It was scary when they took off, but when we were in the air I wasn’t worried,” said 15-year-old Eric Bernard of Englewood.
Before the plane departed, some of the teenagers commented that it was "taking too long to fly." Others were nervous and repeated to friends how they refused to look out the window. One girl even cried. The more brave ones cheered when the plane began to lift off the ground.
They took in everything on this trip.
Many commented on the architectural differences between buildings in D.C. and Chicago's skyscrapers. "These buildings are short!"
"Is this their downtown?" others asked, "It's so different."
Staying true to the name Cole has tagged them with, "explorers," they learned how to use the public transportation system the moment they exited the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. When not on the train or bus, they explored the city on foot.
The itinerary consisted of visits to the White House, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the U.S. Capitol building and the Abraham Lincoln Memorial, where they ran up dozens of steps. They also went to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which just opened Sept. 24.
My Block My Hood My City teens visit the Martin Luther King Memorial. [Provided/Ramon Forte]
That museum was 16-year-old Dejanae King’s favorite part of the trip. She really liked the exhibition on "Slavery and Freedom."
“I was touched because I love my history and I would like to learn more about my history,” she said.
Like all of Cole's trips, trying new restaurants and food is a must. The group ate lunch at the iconic Ben's Chili, the first place President Barack Obama ate at his first day in office.
My Block My Hood visit Ben's Chili Bowl. [Provided/Ramon Forte]
Not only did they try the famous chili dogs and cheese fries, they met with the manager who gave a presentation about the rich history, detailing how the eatery's original owners kept its doors open through the Civil Rights movement, the assassination of Martin Luther King and a decade long subway renovation project that torn up all the sidewalks. He parted with advice.
“You only learn by three ways: reading, dreaming and traveling,” said manager Marshall Brown.
He said he had never heard of My Block My Hood My City, but when Cole explained his organization he was ready to meet the young travelers.
“I love it,” Brown said. “It’s the best thing I’ve seen come out of Chicago. Bringing these young people to show them something different makes me happy.”
Dejanae King, 16, at Ben's Chili Bowl. [Provided/Ramon Forte]
Cole said they only support small businesses.
“We don’t eat at franchises so this place kind of reminded me of Captain Hard Times on 79th St. and Ain’t She Sweet Cafe in Bronzeville,” he said.
To apply to go on this trip, the students submitted a short video explaining why they wanted to go.
The organization worked closely with the school’s administration, looking at students who were in good academic standing, said My Block My Hood My City’s COO Codi Tranel, who is also with City Year. Some of the students have participated in previous explorations with the group.
“We want to try and continue working with the same kids over and over so we can provide these types of experiences that’ll have a bigger impact in the long run,” Tranel said.
She said that introducing and exposing them to something new will open up the door for many possibilities later in life, whether it be going away for college or choosing a career.
“We really believe that kids need to see it to be it,” she said.
Dejanae participated in cooking lessons in September with Chef Jennifer Gavin, who was the third runner up on Fox’s Season 4 of “Hell’s Kitchen.” She said she wanted to go on the trip because Washington is a place everyone should visit. She also said she deserved a slot because of her grades and the fact she tries to treat everyone with respect.
“I really appreciate anything anybody does for me,” she said about getting selected to go.
“What they’re doing is an amazing thing because they’re taking us out the hood and showing us something different,” she said.
Eric said he felt special when he learned he was going to D.C.
“Most kids in our school didn’t get picked so I guess I did very well to earn that spot,” he said.
It was his first time there and on a plane. The highlight of trip for him was seeing the White House.
“I saw the White House and that was good enough for me,” he said.
Like Dejanae, he appreciates what Cole’s program is doing for teens.
“It’s good because it keeps kids out the streets and active,” Eric said. “They’re not engaged in violence or gang-related activities so it keeps them out of trouble.”
This trip was sponsored by Southwest Airlines and Blue Cross Blue Shield. Cole said they could’ve visited anywhere in the country, but he chose D.C. because he wanted the teens to visit the White House while Obama was still in office, even though the teens did not have a chance to go inside this trip.
Doing more trips outside of Chicago is the goal, he said.
“There’s a block and a hood in a city everywhere,” he said, adding that he plans to do a fundraiser soon to send some teens to Senegal next year.
When people purchase his My Block My Hood My City T-shirts and hoodies online, they’re also helping fund the explorations. Visit the website here.
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