Chicago’s Very Own: UCAN

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Cordell Smith and Jasmine Allen are survivors.

“My mother was never around, my father, he was a cop out in Joliet, but he never assumed responsibility so I always like rejection,” Allen said.

Like a lot of youth in Chicago’s black urban communities, violence became a part of cordell’s life.

“As a youth, I had a lot issues dealing with the violence on the streets as well as drug dealing,” Smith said.

By 17 years old, he’d been in and out of jail numerous times for drug dealing. Eventually, he came before a judge who saved his life.

“A judge ordered me to come to a place that can lead me into becoming a positive role model as well as a man and being a leader,” Smith said.

That place was UCAN, formerly known as Uhlich Children’s Home. Established in the 1860s as a place for Civil War soldiers to leave their children for safe keeping until they returned, it now serves over 1,300 kids and families, who themselves need safe keeping.

“The most significant thing about us is we really understand children,” said UCAN CEO Tom Vandenberk. “We understand what got them to where they are why they’re in need and we focus on breaking the cycle.”

Chicago’s Very Own: UCANUCAN has 40 different programs. The core focus is on healing the kids from the effects of he trauma and violence they’ve experienced, and empowering them to make a change.

“Our vision is youth that have suffered trauma can become our future leaders, and we really believe that,” said Norman Livingston Kerr with UCAN.

It worked for Smith, who, at 25 years old, is now a double major in economics and sociology at Northern Lewis University.

“My mind actually changed. I wanted to be here more because it gave me a chance to grow as a person, and to turn from a boy into becoming a man, showing that there are more things to life than violence,” Smith said.

“They’re walking down the street and they’re getting assaulted, they’re getting abused and they have to go somewhere, something has to give,” Kerr said.

At UCAN, Kerr says the kids get suppport and assistance from adults who care about their well being and who want to see them succeed.

Jasmine Allen, once a teen, lost in the system with a baby and nowhere to go, says UCAN saved her life.

“Just when I think no one’s there or no one cares, here comes UCAN. Coming to my rescue and it’s bringing tears to my eyes, it’s the truth though,” Allen said.

She is now apart of the staff, working with other teen moms in UCAN’s “Real Talk” program.

“We don’t look at kids as, ‘Awww, these poor kids, these things are happening to them, we should feel bad for them.’ We look at ‘em as young people who have a future,” Vandenberk said.

“You got some goals, you can do it. You can do it there’s nothing stopping you,” Allen said.

UCAN: It’s one of Chicago’s Very Own

For more information about how you can help UCAN, got to

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    How nice to see them playing up the positive of their efforts. Ask them how they felt about throwing 5 senior citizens(one disabled) and one more disabled 55 year-old out? They bought the building we were occupying and gave us 30 days to move so that they could provide more services to unwed teen mothers. I guess we are more disposable? I moved down the block- unfortunately into a drug dealing building. Guess who showed up to purchase from the dealers? Why, yes, two young women from the UCAN building. So much for "success", huh? Yes, I am still bitter. I moved out at their demand and into a bad situation, so got to move yet again- all at my cost. Guess they got all I care to "give".

  • Ruth L.

    I loved this story, the work this organization is doing is amazing. This is a program that I never knew about that is much needed. I also come to find out that I know someone that is aligned with this organization. We as Chicagoans need to support this place in anyway possible.

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