Constable: Teens leave troubled communities for suburban opportunities
After growing up in troubled neighborhoods of Chicago, five teenagers will be studying for their Fremd High School finals this week in the safety of their Inverness home they call the "mansion."
"Other children should have the same opportunities," says 15-year-old freshman Allen Smith, who was living on the South Side of Chicago before spending the school year in Inverness. "It's a good place to be, with a good school, a really good school."
The young men, ages 13 to 16, are part of a charity called InZone Project, founded in 2011 in New Zealand by Chicago native Terrance Wallace, who won the Vodafone New Zealand's World of Difference award in 2013 and brought the idea with him when he moved back home.
"I saw the massive difference between the haves and have-nots," says Wallace, 41, a deeply religious man who says he felt God led him to create InZone as a way to curb that disparity. Privately financed through fundraisers, a few key donors and the money Wallace makes through his consulting work and share of a biometric security technology business he cofounded in New Zealand, the InZone program cost about $500,000 last year to lease the home and handle all the expenses for the kids, he says. Wallace, who has become legal guardian for all the teens in his program, lives at the house and hires a staff to help care for the teens, who return to their Chicago homes most weekends, even though they call their new residence home.
"It's a place for kids who are disadvantaged," says Wallace, who studied youth development and childhood education at Eastern Illinois University, Moody Bible Institute and Harold Washington College. "They are good kids but live in a neighborhood that can take them in another direction. If they want to come out of that, we'll take them."
Kids selected for the program aren't problem kids caught up in drugs, gangs and violence, but teens with the ability and desire to rise above that and parents willing to give them that chance, Wallace says, adding that his five all talk about going on to college.
"I like the environment that was offered to me, the opportunity," says Keith "K.J." Collins, 15, who says the resources at Fremd are impressive. "In my electronics class, they have a lot of equipment in there, and iPads. I like that all the teachers are supportive."
K.J., who recently had a cousin fatally shot in Chicago, says the transition took time from busy urban streets to a home surrounded by trees and a pond.
"No streetlights, dark roads, trees, and coyotes on the road at 6 in the morning," K.J. says, smiling. "I got homesick the first few weeks."
Animal-lover Allen says he's thrilled by the chance to see coyotes, deer, chipmunks, rabbits, raccoons, skunks, frogs, geese and turtles. The teens also say they made a quicker transition to Fremd.
"At first, we were just walking around looking all mean. We were in a shell," K.J. says. But he soon joined the electronics club and wrestling team and made friends.
"It's so easy to make friends," says Allen, who became a sprinter on the track team. "There are a lot of races at that school. They accept everyone."
When Wallace and the teens first moved to Inverness, a police officer stopped Wallace as he drove home, saying his car made too much noise and questioning him about why he was in that neighborhood.
"I live here," Wallace told the officer, adding that he hasn't seen a police officer since. Fremd has been wonderfully supportive, he said.
InZone is open to all Chicago children, but most of the kids are black, says Wallace, who got his start with a charity in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago, where he grew up and narrowly missed being shot in a carjacking as a child. His supportive single mom, Lizzie, sent Wallace to Dirksen Elementary School, a Chicago school near Rosemont, "where I learned the value of diversity," Wallace says.
With the help of a generous benefactor, InZone plans to move to a larger home in Barrington and bring 15 kids into the program to attend Barrington High School next year, Wallace says, adding that he is a legal guardian, not the head of a group home. "This is not an institution," he says. "This is family."
He pulls out his phone to show a text message he just received from one of the first boys who took part in the program in New Zealand, which continues. That student is now working on his doctoral degree and wanted to thank Wallace, his "Matua" (the Mãori word for father), for making that possible. "I had tears reading it," Wallace says.
Though they live in Inverness, the teens say they still keep in touch with friends from their old neighborhood.
"I've got supportive friends," Allen says. "They understand that I'm trying to have a better life."