Teachers pivot in pandemic and ensure after school program still provides safe haven for Austin neighborhood

Chicago's Very Own

CHICAGO — For 15 years, they have provided a safe haven for kids after school in Chicago’s Austin community.

But as the pandemic has temporarily shuttered schools and in-class learning, Kidz Express had to re-invent the way they reach Chicago’s youth.  

Teachers, Marco Dodd and Darnell Pearson say they’re missing the  sounds of children laughing, playing and just roaming the halls of Leland School after dismissal.

 “Pre-COVID, this place was lively,” Dodd said. “You come in, it would be so colorful. So many kids so many smiles so many faces just full of energy.”


“I come in and it’s quiet, a little eerie, it’s dark cold,” Pearson said.

The duo works for Kidz Express, an after school program to keep kids busy during “the witching hour,” the time between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., when kids as young as elementary school age, are left unsupervised.  And can easily get into trouble.

“It’s a place where kids come and they feel safe,” Dodd said.  “They feel safe to speak their mind, their safe to learn they a change to engage with other people and feel judged. “

Like everything else during this pandemic, Kidz Express has had to adjust to a whole new way of doing things.

 “I think the challenge is making sure they’re still taking care of their business in the classroom and make sure they have a safe and healthy environment for them to prosper outside of the building,” Dodd said.

So to help with academics and keep in touch with their kids, Dodd and Pearson have partnered with outside agencies to expand the tutoring program.  

They’re now holding virtual  tutoring sessions and the mentoring team has made themselves available 24-7 for any student to reach out.

Kidz Express started in 2005, offering a wide array of afterschool programs for inner city youth.   With an average of 70 kids in the program at a time, they welcome all school aged children to join.   

Dodd and Pearson came up through the program themselves. It has been – and still is –  a safe haven for kids, especially during these trying times of COVID-19.

  “We were doing food drives and cookouts – things to get people in the community to come get the household items that they need and food,” Dodd said.

Last weekend in place of Kidz Express’ annual Thanksgiving meal, they distributed packed lunches and grocery gift cards for families in the Austin community.  But even with the food drives and Zoom meetings, Dodd says he worries the kids will fall out of their routine. 

 “I just try to stress to them to talk to someone, stay healthy, eat right, so when all this blows over and we get back to a functioning society, they will be in the right place,” Dodd said.

Dodd and Pearson are doing their best to make this the perfect spot to gather again once the pandemic ends.   

 “We have all this space, we have this big new gymnasium and I can just picture 18 different things going on here at once and it’s like I want that feeling back,” Pearson said.  “But I just have to wait.”

Dodd and Pearson said they are thankful they have been able to connect with the children through this difficult year but they want the kids to know they plan to have double the fun when they return after the pandemic.    


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