Friday, November 5, 2010

Cabrini--Not Just Torn Down Buildings

A few weeks ago when I was walking home from work, I noticed a large crowd gathered outside of the convenience store on my block. I saw a student from Cabrini Connections and asked him what had happened. Soon, I learned that the owner of the store, Bassam Naoum or "Ollie" as he was known, had been shot and killed over the weekend. It wasn't a robbery because nothing in the store or register had been taken.

I attended a vigil that night outside of the store along with well over a hundred people.
I quickly discovered that Ollie had been a beloved part of the Cabrini community. We heard one poignant story after another of how Ollie would give neighborhood kids free snacks when they couldn't afford them, would say "pay me back later" to families needing food, and would always employ members of the community.

People at the vigil demonstrated disbelief, outrage and deep sadness about Ollie's tragic death. Several of the speakers made calls to action urging that the "violence must stop." Although I never had the privilege of knowing Ollie personally (I had only been into the store a handful of times), I was deeply moved by the strong outpouring of grief upon his death and the obvious impact Ollie clearly had on the Cabrini community.

A few days after the vigil, I found a column in the Chicago Tribune with the headline "Ollie's Death Marks Cabrini's End." While the column contains interesting information, I find the message conveyed in the headline and in sections of the article disquieting. Just because buildings are torn down doesn't mean that people disappear, unmet needs and social services are satiated, or that individuals no longer identify with the Cabrini community. On the contrary, attending the vigil along with a huge crowd of people from the area gave me a sense that Cabrini is far from gone.

As Dan Bassill's recent blog post discusses in detail, hundreds of families and school-aged students still live in the Cabrini neighborhood, and many more will be living in the area once plans for the Cabrini transformation are complete. When people think of Cabrini Green as a bunch of torn down buildings, it completely masks the urgent needs of the people living in this area. It also masks the urgent needs of programs and organizations serving these people.

Cabrini Connections has a long history of serving 7th-12th grade youth from the Cabrini area by matching them with caring adult tutors and mentors, offering assistance with high school and college applications, and giving them enrichment and learning opportunities. View the weekly "student spotlights" to learn about some of the almost 80 teens the program currently serves. Also stay tuned to CabriniBlog to keep up with what the program is doing.

The vigil for Ollie was almost three weeks ago now. Every day since, I walk by the store and there are still fresh flowers, new cards to Ollie, and candles lit in his honor. Cabrini Green doesn't seem dead to me at all.

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