Group celebrates 40 years of helping youth
Left to his own devices, Justin Simms knows he could have gone down a self-destructive path toward drug addiction, dropping out of high school and facing a future of juvenile delinquency.
Problems at home and troubles in his social life began affecting Justin's behavior at school. At age 14, he started smoking marijuana and often vented his frustrations through aggression.
Last fall, he assaulted a fellow student at Buffalo Grove High School and was ordered to complete 20 hours of community service and undergo counseling with OMNI Youth Services.
Justin's story is like that of many suburban teens struggling to fit in.
After five months in counseling at OMNI, he says he tries not to get aggravated so quickly. "I'm learning how to cope with anger, stress, how to keep myself calm in situations," said the 16-year-old from Des Plaines.
OMNI — the largest and most comprehensive youth development organization in the Northwest suburbs — works with area police departments and the courts to help divert youths like Justin from the juvenile justice system.
The group will mark its 40th anniversary with a fundraising celebration headlined by comedian Jay Leno on April 28 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago.
OMNI offers 11 programs with 63 staff members providing crisis response, including counseling, mentoring, substance abuse treatment. It offers programs for juvenile offenders and ones for teens with no obvious problems, all with the goal of helping them develop life skills.
Justin said now anytime he feels his anger getting the better of him, he imagines himself being in a happier place, like the serene setting of the Florida Everglades National Park where he spent 10 days kayaking with a group of teens as part of OMNI's Journey Skills for Life wilderness adventure program.
"I went on the trip to get away, and clear my mind too," Justin said. "It put me in a different spot to see where I was at and what I could do to manage the stress."
The teens did daily readings of inspirational and motivational quotations and later discussed them, performed group activities and learned to work together.
Justin keeps a slightly crumpled picture he took of the sun setting over the Gulf waters at the southernmost tip of the Everglades in his pocket to remind him of how tranquil he felt.
"When I look at it, I can see not every problem is as big as it seems," Justin said. "I'm doing better in school. My grades have improved. I show up to class more. I'm still trying to figure out who I am, and my issues. When I'm done with OMNI, that means I've stopped letting my thoughts control me."
Justin said he has found different ways of coping, such as rollerblading, going to movie theaters, and playing basketball. "I can have fun without weed too," he said. "I haven't smoked in a while and I want to stay sober. I want to get myself back on track."
What started out as a volunteer, 24-hour crisis telephone hotline for teens staffed by social workers, police officers, parents, high school students and community members, has grown to become a professionally staffed service agency that through the years has served more than 500,000 suburban at-risk youth.
The grass-roots effort started in the 1970s in Wheeling, filling an unmet need for youth services in the Northwest suburbs, OMNI Executive Director Jay Meyer said.
"After a year, there was recognition that a whole lot of services were needed, particularly for youth ... that would help these kids deal with their problems, help deal with their adolescence," Meyer said.
Thus, OMNI House Youth Service Bureau was born with a skeleton staff of three volunteers and a three-year federal juvenile justice grant.
Soon after, OMNI began receiving funding from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, and other state agencies to provide substance abuse treatment services. OMNI eventually expanded its services and pool of funders, which now includes United Way, individual and corporate donors, various municipalities and townships, and area school districts it contracts with to provide behavioral health services.
"A number of our services are offered in the school setting," Meyer said. "We also have a large program working with kids from DCFS who are pregnant teens, and families who have been indicated by DCFS for abuse and neglect."
OMNI still offers a 24-hour crisis intervention line for teens contemplating suicide, a condition that seems to be on the rise, Meyer said. "If somebody calls, we have a licensed counselor who is available to either talk on the phone or actually meet somebody when necessary."
A second chance
Cindy Mena of Wheeling was 13 when she got a ticket for underage drinking.
Cindy was referred to OMNI and went through several programs, including the Journey wilderness therapy and Girls After School Program. In high school, however, she relapsed and began abusing drugs, saying she felt like an outcast.
"It's been like a roller-coaster ride," said Cindy, now 17 and a junior at Buffalo Grove High School. "At first, I didn't think I needed it."
She was placed in a residential program, but went back to using drugs after she got home. She would stay clean for a couple of days but ultimately succumb to her urges.
"I was still in denial," she said. "Staff here were always supportive. I'm so glad they stuck around with me."
Cindy said OMNI helped improve her tenuous relationship with her parents and brother. Though she spent half her sophomore year in rehab, she is determined to make up for lost time. By taking classes over the summer, she hopes to graduate next year.
"I have to face the consequences of my past, but at least I have a second chance at it," she said.
Cindy now tries to help her friends get clean and urges them to come to OMNI.
"I know what it's like to feel like no one really cares about you," she said. "At least, they know I'm here for them. I learned you can't really take someone out of the rut. They have to get themselves out of it."
Looking to the future
OMNI serves roughly 15,000 children and youth annually, primarily between 11 and 18 years old. It also serves infants through its DCFS programs.
"We're mostly known in the community for working with kids and families that have the most significant challenges — DCFS families, teenagers who are pregnant, kids who are engaged in the juvenile justice system, alcohol or drug problems," Meyer said. "That actually is less than 10 percent of the total number of people we serve each year."
Meyer said the majority of youth OMNI serves has no outstanding or identifiable problem and are often not considered high profile or needing crisis intervention, which are the types of services that get more funding.
"But we are working with them to help them develop as adolescents," he said. "It's really about helping them develop skills that they can apply to everyday life challenges."
OMNI is now also reaching out to serve young adults, 18-24 years old.
While 65 percent of OMNI's $4.7 million annual budget comes from government sources, officials are looking to engage more private donors. "As government funding continues to diminish, individual and corporate donations are going to be more critical," Meyer said.
Getting Leno to perform was a coup and has generated a lot of traffic on the organization's website. "He has a history of charity work. It is great that we can get somebody that has this kind of profile."
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