VAMOS mentors students to help them envision a better future

CHICAGO -- Most people talk about wanting to see change in their neighborhoods, but few step up to do anything.

Claudette Soto was just 21 when she created opportunities for young men and women in Gage Park, and more than 15 years later she`s still going. She said in the beginning she was basically pleading with families to let her help.

"The first year I went door to door, 'I`m starting this program. Do you want to participate?'" she remembers. "And then I knocked on the doors of other students and said, 'this is what I want to do. Are you on board?"

Like Claudette, a lot of the students were fed up with kids being exposed to more violence than academics. That summer she created VAMOS, which stands for Volunteer and Mentor One Summer. Today, the program mainly continues at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where students get to try out chemistry and engineering. Claudette learned architecture there, and like many of the students she works with today, she remembers working on projects and hearing gunshots coming from her block.

"I know the sound when someone gets shot. The gasp," she said.

That upbringing helped inspire her to make it a personal mission to show them there`s a path other than gangs and guns. VAMOS doesn't target the best in the class.

"We target the children in the middle, the C`s and D`s because nobody is actively recruiting them," she said.

Osiris Mora, a high school freshman going through the program, said VAMOS helped him develop a vision for his own future.

"People would always ask me what I wanted to be when I grow up, and I didn't know what to answer," Osiris said.

Mentor Aristeo Contreras went through the program - and now he's a mentor for it.

"[Claudette] made the field more accessible to me," Contreras said. "Without her everything seemed too far away."

Everyone is doing their part to make a difference one student at a time.

"Whether they become clinical engineers or not - it doesn't matter," Victor Perez Luna said. "They need to be exposed to a wide range of fields."

It hasn't always been easy. There have been years when Claudette had to stop the program because of dollars or time.

"During this program the big struggle was funding, trying to find a place where all the kids could get in," Javier Martinez said.

But it eventually worked out. The volunteers seem to be committed. They have a Facebook page, a location and are helping about 15 kids a year. All thanks to a young girl who had a vision and went to work.