Skip to Main Content

Building Champions

By Fred Mitchell

Gang violence, bullying, personal assaults and constant despair are checked at the door of the Marillac St. Vincent Family Services facility on Chicago's often treacherous West Side.

Genuine hope, respect, support and opportunities are ushered inside.

"If one of us is going through something or we need anything…then the people that work (at Marillac) or our friends have got our back," said 11-year-old Christopher Mobley, one of 24 kids from Marillac who took part in the recent seven-week Building Champions program, an initiative of the Chicago Blackhawks Foundation that is now in its second year.

The program - run in conjunction with nonprofit organizations that have existing after school programs - works to foster social and emotional learning through sports for underprivileged and under-resourced children in the city of Chicago. It's an extension of Marillac's mission to provide a safe, family-style atmosphere for some of the city's most at-risk youth.

"I feel like without Marillac...I feel like I would have been in the streets, doing bad things," Mobley said.

Marillac St. Vincent is also one of the grantees of the Chicago Blackhawks Foundation.

Christopher Mobley during Building Champions course at Fifth Third Arena

For 30 years, Deanna Hallagan has served as a combination youth program director, community advocate and surrogate mother to the dozens of youngsters involved at the facility.

"Miss Deanna is like another mother that I never had," Mobley said.

"These kids are facing a lot," Hallagan added as she surveyed them taking part in various activities. "Sometimes (the anger) comes in the door, but I am amazed at their resilience that I see all the time. That heart and that laughter and all the things…kids want the chance to be kids. I feel like that's our mission to try to make sure that they get to be kids.

"We have had a lot of amazing young kids. When I started, (finishing) eighth grade was a big deal. Now we celebrate college and we celebrate master's degrees. It is a great ride to be on. Marillac has a spirit about it. At 22 when I started, I thought I was going to stay on a little while. Now it is not a little while."

Tough Love

Hallagan alternately encourages, scolds, prompts and hugs the youngsters as they attempt to navigate through life's daily challenges. The Building Champions program simulates some of the everyday decisions the youngsters have to make. Other programs, such as Marillac's own "Hope Junior," show the kids there are fun and educational options available to them. 

"I have been here almost 30 years," Hallagan said with a shrug. "'Hope Junior' is a program that my mother (Kay Hallagan) actually started. So my sister (Maureen) is program director here and I have been running the youth program for a long time now. We have about 110 grade school kids at this point. And about 70 high school kids. This summer we were able to employ 108 teenagers through a couple of different programs. 'Chicagobility' was one of them. And one of them was 'After School Matters.' And then we have our teen counselors. So our program is all about building new experiences. We have been connected for a few years with the Blackhawks. We have been going to their class.

"They (Blackhawks) have supported the program financially and also with opportunities. Financial support is always important, obviously. But opportunities are what give this program its heart. We try to go to as many places...if we get invited somewhere we will come. We have been to plays, movies, cultural events, sporting events...just fun events. We really want kids to have all of the experiences that they can possibly have to build a base to make decisions going forward. That's what our program is, that's what my mom's idea was. That is what it has been built on."

Carmen Scott-Boris (right) with Marillac St. Vincent students at Fifth Third Arena

Carmen Scott-Boris led the youngsters through the seven-week Building Champions program that underscored the Blackhawks Foundation tenets of respect, leadership, decision-making, perseverance and teamwork. During the first meeting with the youngsters, she had the kids make up their own list of "Marillac Guidelines." Within separate groups they created posters with guidelines and rules such as: "Listen. No cursing. No stealing, Be respectful. Be a Leader."

When youngsters strayed from the guidelines that they had designed themselves, Scott-Boris pointed to the list on the wall and reminded them of their mission.

Jakyrean Butler,11, said he appreciates the program's efforts to make the kids more disciplined.

"I like how it talks about leadership and decision-making and respect," Butler said. "You should treat people the way you want to be treated. If you treat somebody how they don't want to be treated…like mean or disrespectful, they are going to treat you the same way."

Group sessions also were held in a classroom at the Fifth Third Ice Arena where the Blackhawks practice and many of the Foundation's programs are based. During one session, the students were prompted to talk about violence in their community, cyber bullying, poverty and their environment. Another week, the youngsters worked in groups, assembling pieces of a puzzle and solving other problems. And they took time to play games emphasizing teamwork, patience and focus.

Passing on the Tradition

Hallagan, the 11th of 12 children who grew up in Edison Park, said her most gratifying experience is seeing former attendees become youth counselors for the "Hope Junior" program, such as 20-year-old Jacari Brown.

"I have been around this program my whole life, so it is something I look forward to coming to everyday," Brown said.

"It's more like family because we are all grew up together. I am a youth counselor, so I work for Marillac now. I started here when I was 6 or 7 and now I am a youth counselor. It really touches my heart seeing the kids that I work with, seeing when they were little growing up. Now they are in high school and some of them are going off to college now."

Marillac St. Vincent provides countless opportunities for the young people.

"We have basketball and floor hockey and a volleyball net," Brown said. "We have a computer lounge that we can go in. And we have robotics. We have open gym on Thursdays so we can stay later in the gym.

"If Marillac wasn't around, some of us would probably be on the street, gang-banging, doing different things that we don't have any business doing."

Deanna Hallagan (left) with Marillac St. Vincent students at Fifth Third Arena

The robotics program, in particular, appeals to 10-year-old Khalil Taylor.

"Robotics is something that we do here. We have been to a tournament the past two or three years," Taylor said proudly. "I would describe robotics as one of the great things about this after-school program. We have mentors. Two Brians. We say: 'Brian No. 1' and 'Brian No. 2.' We basically build robots. It is a combination of robotics and technology. We built the robots to perform missions. This year we are doing city shapers. In this we are supposed to perform missions that are solving one of the problems in the city. Like traffic blocks and construction. Things like that.

"It is kind of like we are working, but also having fun."

Asked about his future plans, Taylor paused and then said: "I was actually planning on becoming a doctor, but if that doesn't work out, that (robotics) is what I might do."

Hallagan looks at the youth counselors at Marillac St. Vincent as the ultimate fulfillment of her late mother's dream.

"I think she would like how it looks now. She would love to see the young counselors. She would love to see how much they have added with their own experience and coming through the program," she said. "It is something that I really love. I have been doing it a long time but when I was younger doing it, I didn't think (youth counselors) would be a by-product. But it is probably the best thing that has happened.

"We've got a drum line now. This young man is running the drum line with a band teacher. And we've got a studio that we opened in June that we are really proud of. We've got an arts program…all different kinds of opportunities for kids. I wish we had more. There are not enough opportunities in the neighborhood. There are so many things that are nor fair because of the inequities in this neighborhood. But when I come here I am always happy."

Marquiesha Grant, 26, is also a youth counselor who calls Marillac St. Vincent part of her family.

"I grew up here, probably like an arm-baby," she recalled. "All of my first activities as a youth started here. Playing basketball, jumping 'Double Dutch,' arts and crafts, photography, skating…a lot of different things. It was super exciting. And it is good to give back. I have been working under the kids for 7 or 8 years. To see them step into opportunities that I did not have and wasn't exposed to…like the computer lab and a studio just to call their own…it is like super amazing."

Grant said Marillac St. Vincent has been a life-saver for her.

"It was a safe haven, for sure. And it was just an everyday thing to look forward to. Most kids want to go home and probably get on their video games. I got to come here and complete my homework, meet new friends and build new activities."

What does the program mean to Grant?

"More than I have words for, but it really makes me feel good every day as a person," Grant said. "When I come here, I can leave stuff at the door. I see smiles all the time. If there ever was a problem yesterday, you come here with a clean slate. In the gym right now, you can see that everyone is happy. It's all about building bonds. It's the best thing in life for me right now.

"We call each other family here. If you ask any kid or any adult, we always say we are family."

Jakyrean Butler during Building Champions course at Fifth Third Arena

Hallagan feels her program has gone full-circle with the youth counselors.

"A lot of kids I have known like Marquiesha when she was born, and Jackari I have known his whole life," Hallagan said. "Having the opportunity to watch kids grow up…they are what is driving the program now. These young counselors are giving what they learned and now they are giving it to the kids. It is really cool to see that it is generational. Like a family. And that is what it is supposed to be."

The Building Champions program ended with the youngsters taking the ice at the Fifth Third Arena on Nov. 21. The celebration was filled with smiles and laughter.

"We do a lot of stuff together. This is my third time on skates. It's really fun," Butler said.

The Blackhawks remain committed to supporting worthy organizations such as Marillac St. Vincent and the positive standards they promote.