CHICAGO — An incoming college freshman and entrepreneur from the city’s Chatham neighborhood has dedicated his teen years to giving back to Chicago youth, turning trauma into inspiration and innovation.

Before 18-year-old Jaqueza Thomas starts his freshman year at the University of Illinois at Chicago in a few weeks, he hosted a back-to-school giveaway to gather backpacks and school supplies for the neighborhood kids returning to school.

“It’s in my heart to just do it, I don’t ask for anything,” Thomas said.

He bought and gave out backpacks filled with school supplies – all using his own funds. 

“I want to do 50 backpacks, and I have been reaching out to different non-profits to see if they will donate,” Thomas said. 

Thomas said the Architecture Center would match his goal of 50 backpacks, bringing him to 100 backpacks for youth. 

Thomas will also receive school supply donations from the Chicago Police Department. 

This isn’t the start of Thomas’s philanthropy journey. 

After losing his cousin to gun violence on Juneteenth in 2020, Thomas channeled creativity to honor the loss and advocate for others affected by gun violence. 

“Losing him, that hurt me mentally, and I wanted to do something that would make him proud,” Thomas said. 

Thomas started his first clothing brand at the age of 15, HeartlessLLC, hoping to inspire other youth interested in entrepreneurship while also keeping his cousin’s legacy alive.

HeartLessLLC sells sweatshirts, hats, bomber jackets and more. He started a second brand earlier this year, VapeTrayLLC, named after a nickname he was given by his late cousin and short for his cousin’s name, Kentray. 

He plans to study political science and criminal justice, in hopes to continue his work and open a non-profit to mentor youth success.

“I grew up without my father and a lot of youth lack father figures, especially good father figures,” Thomas said. 

Thomas has visited his previous elementary school to advise students on navigating entrepreneurship and encouraging them to attend college. 

“My vision is for the youth by the youth — we can do anything when we put our mind to it.’