KidsMatter marks 20 years in preparing Naperville area youth to meet challenges

  • DealerInspire CEO Joe Chura talks to students during KidsMatter's 2020 launch of a new Career Pathways program to provide career exposure to students through partnerships with businesses.

    DealerInspire CEO Joe Chura talks to students during KidsMatter's 2020 launch of a new Career Pathways program to provide career exposure to students through partnerships with businesses. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer, 2020

 
 
Updated 9/8/2021 9:36 PM

On Friday, Sept. 17, friends, supporters and community leaders will gather to celebrate the 20th anniversary of a Naperville organization which has offered life-saving services to young people, empowering them to say "no" to destructive choices and "yes" to endless possibilities.

Over those 20 years, KidsMatter has responded to the growing needs of young people and their parents and families, rallying the varied resources of the community to bring expertise and dynamic solutions that have led the way in supporting young people through a myriad of social, emotional, health, safety, academic and career programs.

 

"In the late 1990s, we were seeing an increase in self-harm, drug and alcohol abuse and suicide attempts in Naperville young people coming into the ER at Edward Hospital," says retired Naperville Police Chief Bob Marshall. "We knew that this was not just an issue for medical professionals, or the police, this was a community problem. So, in 1995 Edward sponsored a community-wide health assessment survey. The results made it clear that our kids and families needed support. Mayor Pradel, Edward Hospital and a number of community volunteers began brainstorming what we could do as a community to help."

Among those volunteers was Mary Ann Bobosky, who joined together with Marianne Boyajian to support the Naperville Youth Coalition, which became a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization in 2001 and would eventually be rebranded as KidsMatter. The organization was intent on discovering what young people needed to avoid destructive behavior. The critical Developmental Assets benchmarked by the Search Institute as the building blocks essential for youth to grow to successful adulthood were identified as a framework. The coalition then developed a program of activities and opportunities which promoted asset building in youth across the community.

"The success of KidsMatter is due to the dedication of all the community leaders who realized kids needed more support and stepped up to create a partnership with healthcare professionals, school administrators, teachers, parents to address what kids needed," Bobosky said. "And in an everchanging society, KidsMatter has had the foresight to change too, addressing mental health, drug use, suicide, preparing young people to meet the challenges of school and career, and realizing that parents needed help as much as kids did."

Boyajian, who served as first chairperson of the board of trustees from 2000 to 2002, says the city and the board raised operating capital and were able to hire a full-time executive director in IdaLynn Wenhold in 2001.

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"Hiring a paid director allowed us to reach out to youth-serving organizations and develop and coordinate programming among these groups to serve our young people, " Boyajian explains. Today KidsMatter still coordinates the Collaborative Youth Team, which has grown from a handful of organizations to some 35 groups from DuPage and Will counties working together to address the needs of children, youth and their adult caregivers.

At its core, KidsMatter provides programs and resources to tackle at-risk issues proactively to prevent problems in the lives of youth before they start by equipping them and their families with tools to manage the stressors they face every day. The organization offers a number of annual events aimed at building self-esteem, positive values and resiliency. KidsMatter also offers community-wide internet safety and anti-bullying initiatives to build awareness and skills for children from elementary school through high school.

Additionally, KidsMatter supports families through resources, clinical experts and interactive opportunities to give parents the tools to recognize and effectively navigatedestructive behaviors. Recently the organization has added programs for students designed to promote leadership skills and career exploration. Annually, KidsMatter has had 250,000 attendees participate in its various programs for young people, parents, families and the community.

From the beginning, activities focused on giving young people the assets that would propel them forward in positive ways. From launching the Volunteer Fair, designed to help kids and families discover the rewards and self-esteem-building of giving back, to taking over and evolving the Job Fair from the Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce in 2005, helping1000 young people annually learn to interview and meet over 60 potential employers on-the-spot, the focus has always been on empowerment.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Mayor Pradel understood the power of recognition," says Wenhold. "'He invited KidsMatter to adopt the Youth Service Awards in 2005, honoring young people for their contributions to the community." Another recognition event was the Red-Carpet reception for youth who produced Cyber-Bullying Awareness Videos.

Over the past three years, KidsMatter has hosted the annual Digital Leadership Summit in partnership with area schools. Now attended by 400 student leaders from 47 schools, the program charges young people with carrying their new-found knowledge back to their respective schools to present to their peers as Digital Leaders.

Partnering with the City of Naperville, a new Leadership Academy provides training for young people appointed by Mayor Steve Chirico to fill student positions on city boards and commissions that will familiarize them with processes and procedures, as well as engendering peer connections. Students are exposed to tools including the Leadership Model, Leadership Development and the Keirsey Temperament Assessment, all designed to equip them to lead themselves, others and ultimately, organizations.

Young people have also been encouraged to be part of the solution to a healthy, vibrant overall community. In 2010 KidsMatter sponsored a program whereby students from all five District 203 and 204 high schools partnered with Century Walk to create public art in the Van Buren Parking Deck vestibules.

In 2015, KidsMatter partnered with Naperville police and fire departments to hold a Prescription Take-Back Program. Students spent a Saturday traveling to over 200 businesses and pharmacies and canvassed downtown Naperville alerting people to the dangers of leftover prescription drugs left at home, which are often the gateway for young people experimenting with other drugs. The "Don't Be an Accidental Drug Dealer" campaign alerted the community to monitor, secure and properly dispose of unused medications at local fire department drop boxes. Mayor Chirico hosted a press roundtable with KidsMatter to publicize the issue and the campaign. Experts included Chief Marshall and Fire Chief Mark Puknaitis as well as experts from Linden Oaks Behavioral Health.

From the first Edward health assessment, KidsMatter has based its program and service development solidly on actual research done in the community.

"We were clear that we couldn't work in silos, and that if we could work collectively to address the causes of these behaviors, all of our programs would directly address the stressors of the time," Wenhold said. "We were able to access the resources of mental health and social service professionals, college and university researchers, educators and law enforcement professionals. It was these partnerships that gave us the meaningful insights to proactively address what was really going on with our young people and their families."

Partnering with the Naperville Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Merchants Association, KidsMatter launched "KidsMatter to Naperville Business," following a 2003 chamber survey of area business and 100 students to assess ways in which the two entities could productively co-exist in the downtown. Merchants became aware of kids' concerns about recognition and treatment in stores, and kids became aware of the safety and commercial concerns of the merchants. Together they developed the Kid Friendly Business campaign, whereby, 66 businesses posted Kid Friendly stickers in stores welcoming young people.

A survey funded by United Way in 2006-2007 looked at concerns of youth, parents and youth service providers. Concerns about school safety, drug and alcohol use and suicide ideation informed additional programs in conjunction with the Collaborative Youth Team and Mayor Pradel's Safety Round Table. Resulting programs included Active Shooter Threat Assessment and Training for educators and all area youth-serving organizations, as well as Suicide Awareness and Prevention education and resources for educators, parents and youth as well as the formation of ParentsMatterToo.

In cooperation with School Districts 203 and 204, the State of the Kids Survey was administered in 2017 to 4,800 students in seventh and 10th grade. Mayor Chirico joined KidsMatter and representatives of Linden Oaks, 360 Youth Services, Samaracare and Police Chief Bob Marshall for a press roundtable presenting the research results of the study, developed by Professor Patricia M. Schacht, Ph. D., Associate Professor of Psychology at North Central College.

The media briefing was followed by a community-wide presentation and CYT Resource Fair. Stressors noted by students included academic, athletic, social and parental pressure. Students concerns included social media influence; as well as lack of people they felt comfortable talking to about their stress and anxiety; and not finding healthy alternative to drugs and alcohol to mitigate stress.

Direct results of that survey include the Crisis Text Line which KidsMatter sponsors in Partnership with the DuPage and Will county health departments. The Crisis Text Line has had over 1,300 conversations with people in stress in DuPage County alone and reports seven active saves since its launch. The service receives hundreds of student text messages each month.

Upon the retirement of IdaLynn Wenhold in 2018 after 17 years, KidsMatter hired Kamala Martinez from the philanthropic wing of the corporate sector. In addition to helping build dynamic new corporate partnerships, Martinez continued to build on the knowledge gleaned from the 2017 stress survey.

"The data showed us that we needed to address the social-emotional challenges students were facing," Martinez said. "It was obvious that in addition to the Crisis Text Line, students needed tactics to help them navigate the stressors they face."

SEL programming has included Resilient University, which was developed by researchers from Harvard University and the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. Course material includes Resilient Youth, Mind of a Champion and Stress Less for the Test. All provide young people with both resilience concepts and practical tactics that bolster social and academic resilience. KidsMatter also holds a number of public community education forums on mental health issues affecting youth and their families each year. Recent topics have included Mental Health & Suicide Prevention, Gender & Sexuality, Stress Management and Drugs & Vaping. In 2020, the State of the Kids stress survey was expanded to study students in Will County as well.

"With depression and anxiety in kids on the rise, we need to be prepared to help kids and families with psychological and emotional supports. It's been exciting to see the growth of KidsMatter into a well-oiled organization that can be responsive to the needs of young people by reaching out to lift them up during times like COVID," said KidsMatter Board President Laura Bokar, Ed.D, LMFT, LCPC, ACS and CEO, Fox Valley Institute for Growth & Wellness. "We are committed to working with the schools and the community on education to help parents and the public understand how important it is not to shy away from what kids may be dealing with during difficult times."

The newest KidsMatter offering for youth is the Career Pathways program.

"For the past several years we have focused on empowering youth to realize their purpose and know their value as we help them find their path," Martinez said. "We know not every young person is meant for a college degree. Regardless of their academic record, their economic background, where they come from or where they've been, what matters is where they're going and how KidsMatter can help them get there!"

Career Pathways offers high school juniors and seniors exposure to a variety of career clusters and works with schools to provide college and career readiness and workplace exposure. The program also helps youth develop employable skills and prepares them for potential interviews and internships while offering talent acquisition opportunities to area businesses. "When you take a person's passion and combine it with their talent and add in purpose, you unlock the genius inside. We wanted this program to help our youth find their genius," Martinez said.

2020 and the COVID 19 pandemic have presented new challenges for KidsMatter and the youth they serve. "

You only need to see the uptick in use of the Crisis Text Line to see that young people were deeply affected by the lock down, remote learning, canceled plans and social isolation," said current Executive Director Nina Menis who came on board this summer after a long career in education.

"It is truly an honor and a privilege to begin my service during KidsMatter's 20th Anniversary year," Menis said. " I have seen the power of collaboration firsthand in this organization, and I'm eager to work with all our partners, community leaders and supporters who have positioned us well to respond to the mental health needs of our youth and families as we emerge from the pandemic. This year our work will be more important than ever."

From its inception, KidsMatter has focused on providing young people the developmental assets they need for success in whatever form that takes for them. Based on the Search Institute, those assets include support; empowerment; boundaries and expectations; constructive use of time; commitment to learning; positive values; social competencies and positive identity.

In 2010, the board gathered to discuss how to best communicate KidsMatter's mission to the public. Community leader and then Board Member Steve Rubin suggested highlighting the successes of prevention.

"You still need to intervene when the need arises but imagine the return on investment in our kids if we could identify the issues early on and get ahead of the things that drive kids to destructive behaviors," Rubin says. "When you give someone a chance you never know what can happen. That first time a kid experiences success -- that must be electric. It's fun to watch, but it's better that we can all be a part of it. The stronger our kids are, the stronger our community is -- we all benefit from each other's success. Everyone needs an opportunity to discover their possibilities. We only have to open the door."

Reflecting on the past 20 years, Boyaijian says "It is both gratifying and heartwarming that KidsMatter, through all the programming and activities, has held to our original mission: To combat our greatest fears and foster our greatest hopes for our community's kids."

For more information on KidsMatter visit KidsMatter2us.org.

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