Center for Unconditional Love

Roseland's Agape Community Center broadens students' horizons

BY MOLLY BREWER // PHOTOS BY SOFIE WOLTHERS

Derrion Albert, a 16-year-old Fenger High School honors student, was on his way home from school on Sept. 24, 2009, when he was caught in the middle of a brawl between neighborhood rival gangs.

That fight would kill him.

The video of Albert’s death went viral on the Internet. It has become a national example of the violence that seems to have plagued Chicago’s South Side.

In the background of the video, there is a lone, gray building standing beside an empty parking lot, surrounded by litter on the pavement.

The encompassing area appears desolate with the exception of frequent trains that speed by aggressively on the tracks neighboring the facility. The smell of the steel and gasoline lingers in the air.

Ironically, that very building that stood witness to the death of Albert’s young life is the location of a mission-based after school program called the Agape Community Center.

In Greek, the word “agape” means “unconditional love.”

The Agape Center serves a refuge for youth seeking to escape the daily problems they face at home and around the impoverished community of Roseland.

On average, the unemployment rate in Roseland is around 17 percent, while the per-capita income is just under $18,000 per year.

Driving through the neighborhood, it doesn’t take long to notice the number of boarded up and seemingly abandoned homes as well as the lack of grocery stores, restaurants and outside community spaces.

Marc Henkel, the co-city director of the Agape Center, has devoted his life to helping these children find their purpose.

When Henkel, 48, first moved to Roseland 26 years ago, he was one of the only white people  living in the neighborhood, but he believes that in order to help people, one needs to experience their problems firsthand.

“What I’ve come to learn is that yes, there’s violence, but there’s a whole lot more people that want to do positive things than want to do negative things,” he said.

The majority of Roseland’s population is black. The community often faces issues that stem from a lack of family support and resources from schools, many of which, are on performance probation or have faced severe funding cuts.

“They come [to the Agape Center] because they see people who truly care about them.” Henkel said. “They get a hug every day, they get people who know their names, adults who care about them. They have a safe environment to play in where they can have fun and learn new things with peers in a way that they know they’re going to be protected if something [bad] happens.”

The fear that something bad could happen is a familiar feeling for former Agape Center student Henry Walker, who is now 33 and works as an assistant principal in Normal, Illinois.

Growing up in Roseland and attending the impoverished schools in the area, Walker had little insight into the world outside of his own, often scary, backyard.

“Simply getting to school was a challenge in itself,” Walker said.

The fear of stumbling upon the wrong group of people and facing the same fate as Derrion Albert would often determine if Walker would even take the public bus to school that day.

Walker came across the Agape Center when he was in the fifth grade and decided to join a friend for a game of basketball during their open gym time after school. That single evening soon turned into a routine for Walker.

“Part of what kept me away from being deeply involved [with gangs] was going to the Agape Center and connecting with Marc,” Walker said. “Accepting spirituality and having some kind of accountability was instrumental in helping me see the bigger picture.”

That bigger picture meant exploring other areas in the city and trying new experiences that were not available to him before attending the Agape Center.

“Most people outside of Chicago, when they think of Chicago, they think of downtown. For inner city kids, when you say Chicago, it’s the neighborhood. It’s the hood, the inner city,” Walker said. “Once I saw that it was a different world than what I had been presented with or what I had known, it changed my curiosity.”

T-Awannda Piper, 41, who is the director of another South Side youth program called Demoiselle 2 Femme, also believes students need more positive experiences outside of the neighborhood.

“One of the biggest obstacles and struggles that I see with kids in distressed areas is options,” Piper said. “The influence of violence, teen pregnancies, STDs, all of these things are a pipeline for increased risk in our neighborhoods.”

These obstacles create a huge concern for Claire Florine, an English teacher at Harlan Community Academy High School, who recently lost a student of her own to a gang-related shooting.

Florine, 25, believes that despite all of the shortcomings faced by underprivileged students in the Roseland community, they want the same things that they often lack at home.

Antonio Allen, 16, a student in Florine’s AP Language and Composition class, avoids the gangs and violence by participating in Harlan’s drum line and looking ahead to post-graduation.

“I’m not too much of a person to follow the lead or somebody else and the example they set,” Allen said. “[After I graduate,] I want to take up biomechanics as a trade and go to school for psychology.”

The resources that Harlan has provided to Allen have made this possible, despite common perceptions about the school and the Roseland community.

“As far as what we have [at school], if something is wrong, if it’s an issue with messed up books or something, it’s because the students treat them that way, but I’ve learned to deal with it,” Allen said. “It’s not as bad as some people would make it seem.”

Florine agrees that her students shouldn’t be treated differently by people because of their impoverished upbringing.

“They’re not much different than you and I were when we were in high school,” Florine said. “They wanna have fun and they wanna be loved just like any other kids.”

It is for that reason that Henkel chooses to remain in the Roseland community and continues to fight for the South Side students every day.  

“I think whenever a person learns about a different culture that’s different from their own,” Henkel said, “their life is enhanced and can only become more enjoyable.”