Chicago CRED graduates celebrate their high school graduations and set their sights on future careers

Dimaris Smith can’t even count the number of Chicago-area high schools he’s been expelled from. He bounced around schools until he landed in a juvenile detention center and then jail.

He tries, ticking off the schools on his fingers. He eventually gives up trying to pin down a number. Smith just walked a red carpet in front of a cheering crowd waving orange pom poms and an emcee asking her to strike a pose.

Wednesday was cause for celebration for Smith, who at 27 received his GED after joining Chicago CRED. He had to redo all of his secondary education and completed it in two years.

The anti-violence organization was founded in 2016 by former US Secretary of Education and Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan.

This year’s ceremony outside the South Shore Cultural Center saw 58 young men and women receive diplomas after dropping out of high school. The organization takes those recovering from involvement in gun violence and gives them stipends, job training and soft skills, in addition to trauma therapy.

According to a Northwestern report, CRED reduces the likelihood of its members being shot or arrested by nearly 60%. Prior to joining CRED, researchers estimate that members would be 25 times more likely than the average Chicago resident to be shot.

Michael Chester, CRED’s senior outreach member, said he travels to the “toughest” neighborhoods to recruit young people for the program.

“I find guys who perpetuate violence and tell them a little bit about me,” Chester said. “I was in a penitentiary, I made mistakes in my life, but I have corrected that now. I try to show them that they don’t have to go to jail to be a man.

Between hula-hooping, singing and dancing, graduates and their families pull over in the car, walk down a red carpet and pose with their loved ones on stage after receiving their diploma.

“These are guys who failed to graduate from high school,” said CRED spokesman Peter Cunningham. “They’ve been through a lot of tough times, and now they have their moment. They feel that excitement and are recognized for having accomplished something.

Tyrone Phelps, 30, said he was on the streets before he found CRED.

Staff congratulate Tyrone Phelps during the Chicago CRED graduation ceremony in front of the South Shore Cultural Center in the South Shore neighborhood.

Phelps, a resident of Englewood, was expelled from high school and never returned.

He had one year of school left and finished the CRED program in six months.

“I never thought I would get my GED until I got into this program,” he said.

Now he’s heading towards getting his truck driver’s license after forging ties with CRED, which helps match graduates with jobs, trade schools and companies.

Smith uses her CRED training to attend trade school for HVAC.

“CRED let me know that it’s never too late to start,” Smith said. “You can make it happen regardless of the circumstances.”

“We want to show them that not only have you achieved this great opportunity and this monumental opportunity, but that there is more to celebrate,” said LaQuay Boone, senior director of employment services at CRED. “We’re starting to help get those things out and show them, ‘You’re worthy, you’re valid, and that’s just one of the many things you’ll continue to accomplish. “

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