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Emanuel launches plan to raise $50 million to help at-risk kids

Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced new investments mentoring after-school summer programs Harper High School 6520 S. Wood St. Feb. 7 2013.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced new investments in mentoring, after-school and summer programs at Harper High School, 6520 S. Wood St. Feb. 7, 2013. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 21, 2013 6:35AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is challenging a business community that bankrolled Millennium Park, the NATO Summit and Chicago’s failed Olympic bid to raise $50 million over five years for a higher moral purpose: saving the lives of thousands of at-risk kids.

Emanuel is putting his formidable fund-raising skills to work to raise money for early intervention programs for younger kids and provide jobs, mentoring, recreation and conflict-resolution programs to give troubled teens an alternative to the gang violence that claimed the life of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton.

The fund-raising campaign will be co-chaired by Allstate Insurance CEO Tom Wilson, whose company has agreed to ante up the first $5 million. It also will be led by Jim Reynolds, CEO of Loop Capital Markets, who chaired the Chicago Housing Authority board before shifting to the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority.

Their marching orders from Emanuel are to raise at least $50 million over the next five years — enough to reach “thousands and thousands” of young people, the mayor said.

“The city always comes together — whether it’s for the Olympics, NATO, a museum or some type of effort of civic pride. Millennium Park is a classic example. Millennium Park is fabulous. NATO was good for the city around the world,” Emanuel said in an exclusive interview with the Chicago Sun-Times.

“This effort is on that scale to also do something good and important for the city,” he said. “Let’s take the same companies and focus on our most important resource: kids. Let’s put our resources and our time into making sure our kids get on the right track and get into positive activities rather than destructive ones.”

As one of Chicago’s most prominent African-American business leaders, Reynolds is a logical choice to lead the fund-raising effort, which also includes leading philanthropists.

He’s a classic Chicago success story: He grew up in Englewood and graduated from Chicago Vocational High School. He joked that he cornered the mayor at a Christmas party and begged Emanuel to “let me get back involved” in his native South Side.

“As I looked at the needs of the community, we needed to get involved, get back in there and make this city as great as it should be,” Reynolds said. But “we can’t be a great city unless we really bring along all sectors, [including] the young people on the South and West Sides.”

Reynolds said he would try to find existing neighborhood programs already making a difference with a few hundred kids and “scale up that infrastructure” to serve a few thousand.

An advisory committee of criminal justice experts and community leaders will measure the cost-effectiveness of funded programs and their effect on violent crime and school achievement.

“We’re trying to touch the lives of young people who, in many instances, the only structured organization they know is a gang,” Reynolds said. “We’re really going to roll up our sleeves, get involved and try to intervene at a young enough and impressionable enough age to get them to choose a different path. If we can have success at the preschool, elementary, high school and even among young people who’ve dropped out of school, we will have impacted the criminal justice system.”

Wilson said the $50 million will bankroll strong blocks, safe passage, intervention and mentoring programs and finance “student re-engagement for kids kicked out” of schools.

“This is not about business saying, ‘Here’s some money.’ It’s business saying to the community, ‘Let’s join arms and save some kids’ lives.’ The communities have to be involved to drive action. This is about programs. But it’s also about community engagement,” Wilson said.

Noting that the Chicago area collectively spends $4 billion a year on public safety, Wilson said, “This effort to turn the tide could, over the long-term, reshape how that money is spent.”

President Barack Obama talked eloquently about the problem of at-risk youth last week at Hyde Park Career Academy.

“When a child opens fire on another child, there’s a hole in that child’s heart that government can’t fill — only community and parents and teachers and clergy can fill that hole,” Obama said.

It may be a hole government can’t fill, but Emanuel is determined to at least try.

Emanuel’s political fund-raising skills are legendary. He does his fund-raising in secret. He refuses to take “no” for an answer. He’s notorious for establishing a figure and hounding donors until he receives that amount.

When a political action committee supporting Obama fell behind Republican PACs, Emanuel rode to the rescue and helped Democrats narrow the gap.

Business leaders will soon be feeling that same relentless financial squeeze as the mayor tries desperately to stop the gang violence that has made Chicago the murder capital of the nation.

After Hadiya Pendleton was shot to death last month, Emanuel shifted 200 Chicago Police officers from desk jobs to street duty and assigned them to “area saturation teams” focused on gang violence.

He pushed for mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes and authorized an additional $2 million for “Becoming A Man,” a program that mixes counseling with Olympic sports to reduce arrests and improve school attendance among troubled teens.

On Tuesday, Emanuel joined forces with Chicago native and NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas to raise $480,000 over 60 days to expand the popular “Windy City Hoops” basketball program.

The five-year, $50 million fund-raising campaign is a much broader effort aimed at corporate Chicago.

“There’s the response part: policing. There’s a gun-control aspect. And there’s also a prevention piece. For everything else to work, you have to have this prevention scaled up,” Emanuel said. “This is not just about getting money out. It’s about getting the right results: kids back in school or learning a skill set so they can have a productive life.”

Hadiya, a promising sophomore at King College Prep, was shot in the back Jan. 29 while hanging out with friends at a park a few blocks from the high school and less than a mile from Obama’s Kenwood mansion.

Her murder shined another unflattering international spotlight on Chicago because she was an honor student, a volleyball player and a majorette who had just performed with her high school band at festivities tied to Obama’s second inauguration.

She lost her life to the very gang violence she had condemned in a 2008 public service video.

Days after the murder, former state senator and mayoral candidate James Meeks blamed the toxic mix of failing schools, a proliferation of firearms and single-parent households for gang violence that, he said, was beyond the mayor’s ability to stop.

“By the time a child — especially an African-American male — reaches the seventh grade, he’s already three grade levels behind. By the time he’s a sophomore, he drops out. Combine an uneducated kid with a fatherless kid and you’ve got a dangerous product of the street at 15. It’s that product of the street that’s causing all of this violence,” Meeks said then. “Unless the White House, the mayor or somebody comes up with a program designed to reach products of the street, we will never turn it around. You’re dealing with hopelessness. These young people don’t have any hope or any fear.”

The $50 million fund-raising campaign is Emanuel’s answer to Meeks’ challenge.

“We have a great history in Chicago, but it’s never been organized into one concerted effort,” Emanuel said. “We’re talking about thousands upon thousands of kids being touched in a different way by all types of initiatives that give kids an affirmative, adult-supervised activity, rather than going on the street being vulnerable to crime.”

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