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Hope in Unity to help troubled youth earn GEDs

Created: Friday, January 13, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

SYCAMORE – A nonprofit organization is working to give troubled youth a second chance that starts with education.

Hope in Unity was established last year with the help of funds from private businesses, and about 10 people volunteer their time to counsel and educate high school drop-outs who end up in the court system.

The organization has joined forces with the DeKalb County State’s Attorney’s Office, which is preparing to provide incentives for youth to participate in the general education degree, English as a Second Language and counseling programs.

“We’ll start identifying defendants we think might benefit from this,” State’s Attorney Clay Campbell said. “We’re encouraging young people to complete the program and get a GED. We’ll take that information into consideration as we resolve their cases.”

The organization’s director, George Gutierrez, is a professor emeritus at Northern Illinois University with a background in counseling who formerly directed NIU’s Center for Latino and Latin American Studies. He said the group is aimed at helping young high school drop-outs, but also helps family members and members of the community acquire a GED or learn English.

What’s particularly disturbing for Gutierrez is that some local teenagers as young as 13 are being recruited to gangs.

“It’s a terrible future for them,” he said. “I know how difficult it is for them to get out of that crime environment.”

Noe Escamilla, the organization’s president, said getting a GED is just the first step.

He hopes it leads young defendants out of the court system and encourages them to pursue a higher education at NIU or Kishwaukee College, which is another aspect of Hope in Unity’s services.

Sycamore-based Ecosteam, which he works for, has been a financial supporter of the organization. Other than private partnerships, Hope in Unity has also partnered with local clergy and schools. Several retired professors are also on board to help students successfully earn a GED, Gutierrez said.

“They need to know there’s love out there for them with no strings attached,” Escamilla said. “We’re all in this together.”

It’s important for those in the program to want to participate, Gutierrez said. They are also asked to pay a $200 fee to participate because Gutierrez believes a monetary investment will motivate students to stick with the program until they have a GED in hand.

Campbell said most of the youth who come through the court system are high school drop-outs and are more likely to join gangs. His hope is that helping them pursue an education will make them more employable so the cycle doesn’t repeat itself.

“We’re trying to prevent young people from a felony conviction because it follows you for life and makes you nearly unemployable,” Campbell said. “It’s extremely good to participate because we’ll consider giving them a break.”

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