Youth Leadership Program

Sawdust and Service – Joy and Connection Between Youth Crossroads, Oak Park’s Hephzibah’s Head Start Children and Hope Houses Workshop, Inc.

A friendship was born recently between two men with a passion for sawdust and serving. Joel Wallen, director of the Youth Leadership Program (YLP) at Youth Crossroads, always loved creating with wood, which is part of what led him to Steve Lefko, the founder of a new Berwyn business Hope Houses Workshop, Inc. Hope Houses builds dollhouses and toys, and publishes storybooks that spark imagination and grow young minds for parents wanting the best for their children while making a difference in others’ lives. It’s a socially conscious buy-one give-one business partnered with prominent child and family service agencies in Chicagoland.

Development of a new line of vintage wooden toys sparked an idea – Why not invite the Youth Leadership Program teens to build toys for the Head Start children of Hephzibah Children’s Association of Oak Park, a founding Give Partner of the Workshop? “The workshop exists to grow imaginations, connect people and promote a Family is Key belief; these three organizations working together is magical,” says Lefko. YLP teens built over sixty toys at the workshop over three evenings before delivering them to the Hephzibah classrooms. They built three types: Jacob’s ladders, tops, and rubber band-propelled cars, each with a handwritten and encouraging note for the young recipient.

“The workshop environment and this hands-on project is fun and rewarding for these YLP youth. We’re happy to be connected with Hope Houses and Hephzibah,” says Wallen.

The project culminated with a surprise delivery to Hephzibah’s Head Start classrooms. Merry Beth Sheets, Hephzibah’s Executive Director experienced the event.  “A HUGE thank you to all for choosing us for this incredible project. It was amazing to see our kids’ eyes light up when each toy was being demonstrated. They could hardly wait to pick the one they wanted and absolutely LOVED the toys. ”

Check out Hephzibah Children’s Association and Hope Houses Workshop, Inc. for more on this project. Click below to see the video.



The Youth Leadership Program at Youth Crossroads Inc. is now officially accepting applications for our Fall internship. The program provides students with leadership training, college and job readiness, and a wide variety of volunteer opportunities. Students in the program also have the opportunity to go on camping trips, and recreational outings to Six Flags and other places.

Youth in Grades 9 through 12 and live in Cicero, Berwyn, Stickney, or Lyons may apply online here.


2018 Youth Leadership Service Trip to Houston, TX

Youth Crossroads’ Youth Leadership Program coordinated their annual service trip during spring break  to work with an organization called CY-Hope Org. in Houston, Texas. The trip included 18 local teens and four adult staff members. Teens raised all their own money to fund trip expenses.

During the week in Houston, they helped under-resourced families rebuild homes effected by Hurricane Harvey. The group also assisted at a number of work-sites to help restore homes and make them livable again.

As if that didn’t keep the group busy enough,  the teens volunteered with a number of other organizations including Ronald McDonald House and Houston Food Bank. This trip gave everyone the opportunity to not only serve others, but also learn about the victims of natural disasters. For many of the teens, it was the trip of a lifetime and was the first time they left their home towns. Thanks to everyone who supported this great effort!

Morton East HS Teens Recognize Youth Crossroads’ Leadership Program at Prom!



Social Media Team Creates Film Documentary

After a year of planning, conducting surveys, interviewing, filming, and editing, the Youth Leadership Program Social Media Project crew proudly premiered its first documentary film entitled “Finding Our Way, The Struggle with Anxiety and Depression in Urban Youth” on August 26, 2016, at Liberty Center in Berwyn.

Realizing the effects of being bombarded by social media messages, TV, peers, family, and school pressures, the team decided to delve into the issues of teen depression and anxiety which plague so many teenagers today. They surveyed their peers, interviewed fellow students and professional adults familiar with these issues and their impact on teenagers’ lives. The team plans to present the film to other teen groups and middle schoolers throughout the school year.

The project was funded by a grant from the Berwyn Development Corporation through its Philanthropic Program for a Youth Social Media Project, the goal of which was “to engage local teens in community affairs, inspire inspirational leaders to view their youth as assets and provide greater awareness to the Berwyn community regarding important social issues”. The team was guided through the filmmaking process by Master’s level intern and Emmy Award winner Dianne Ancona and video producer Justin Kenealy, who served as executive producers.

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The YC Leadership Program (YLP) offers local teenagers great opportunities to discover their emerging potential and put that potential to work through community service projects.

In the YLP program, teens receive training in leadership, teamwork, community organizing, assessing community needs, and service project planning and design. YLP leaders use that training to conduct service projects that help their peers and community become safer, healthier and more aware of issues that impact daily life. The YLP offers graduated levels of leadership development so that teen “interns” advance to “advisors” then to “youth directors” who consult with the YC Board of Directors, organize national service projects, and help guide future YLP program initiatives. Since 2008, over 1500 YLP teens have conducted nearly 125 service projects impacting over 22,000 of their peers and community residents.


“I became involved in Youth Crossroads because of how the program is constantly giving to the community; I wanted the opportunity to aid in this endeavor. I’m involved because I know that Youth Crossroads makes a difference in this community that no other program has even come close to. Youth Crossroads is a program that is truly there to help people, and I want to be involved in this process for how ever long I am able to be.

Youth Crossroads has truly changed my life. I feel like I am part of something bigger in this world. I’ve always been an optimist and all around energetic individual, but Youth Crossroads has heightened these traits. I find myself in a greater mood throughout the day knowing that I can spend my time after school at a program that makes me feel that I am equal with everyone. Being able to go to a place where I can feel accepted for who I am is a wonderful thing, and I desire for everyone to become involved in this experience to achieve this positive impact as well.

Youth Crossroads is a non-profit organization, yet, it manages to continuously give to the community. The question of whether Youth Crossroads should receive donations isn’t a matter of if but of when! How else would such an amazing program continue the amazing feats it is currently achieving? If you won’t take my word for this amazing program then ask the hundreds, if not thousands, of people that this program has aided.”                                                       Michael R.


Every year’s a busy year for the Youth Leadership Program. Ninety-six youth receive in-depth training in leadership development, explore college life through tours at local universities, receive CPR training, perform public speaking , and participate in nearly a dozen outdoor leadership development activities such as rock climbing, mountain biking, canoeing, camping and an 8-day wilderness boundary water adventure.

YLP teens put that leadership training to good use by contributing 10,000 hours of volunteer service in their community. Teens have designed projects to educate their peers on bullying, teen depression, high school readiness, and “unplugging from technology”. YLP teens partner and volunteer with many other community organizations over the year ranging from local food pantries, World Vision, Kiwanis Pancake Breakfast, back-to-school events, and park district activities.


” I really don’t know where I would be without YLP.  I’m more confident and trusting of other people now.”

“If it weren’t for this program, I would not be attending Northwestern University.”

“This program is helping me realize my dream of helping others.”


Each summer Youth Crossroads hosts the B.U.I.L.T. Summer Program (Building Unique Individual Leaders Today). For seven weeks, B.U.I.L.T. works with youth entering 6th, 7th, and 8th grades from Berwyn and Cicero neighborhoods. The program includes recreational, art, life skills, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) activities.builtzoo2

Some of the summer’s highlights are playing 4-way soccer, building rockets, and creating art. To supplement regular activities of the summer program, the  B.U.I.L.T. program incorporates two field trips. Breakfast and lunch are provided to participants daily.

 Busy Summer for YLP!

The Youth Leadership Program has been flying on all cylinders this summer! Our youth leaders are constantly in our building. As Sergio, a high school senior explained,” For this summer, Youth Crossroads has been like a second home.”  Early each morning about 10 youth show up to serve as Youth Mentors to middle school students in our summer school program.  They run activities, help students with reading and serve as positive role models to them.  As one of our mentors, Manuel describes his experience as such, “I learned a lot about patience, responsibility and how to be a good leader.

In the afternoons, nearly 30 high schoolers pack the room to participate in our summer Youth Leadership Internship. Each day they receive leadership training and opportunities to serve others. One intern, Marlon, stated, “As a new intern, I have the opportunity to make new friends and serve my community.” Over the next week, our interns will spruce up a local park and volunteer at the Cicero Food Pantry.

B.U.I.L.T. SUMMER PROGRAM  2013   Building Unique Individual Leaders Today 

YC  again hosted the B.U.I.L.T. summer program for local community youth who will enter 6th, 7th and 8th grades in the upcoming school year. This was a great opportunity for kids to have fun with their friends while doing arts and crafts, science experiments, and outside team activities.

The B.U.I.L.T. program offered a plethora of varying activities for kids of all ages to enjoy. They played kickball, dodgeball, softball, capture the flag, and, of course, had water balloon fights. Crafts included creating papier mache animal figures with paint, inflated balloons, and lots of messy wet newspaper. The students also redesigned and made vibrant book jackets for their favorite books.

Through our partnership with the Berwyn Public Library, each student participated in the Library’s summer reading program and spent at least 30 minutes reading every day. This encouraged recreational reading and helped students maintain or gain academically during the summer months. Upon completion, students received a new free book and were able to attend a pool party at the end of the summer.

Students participated in a number of hands-on science experiments this summer.  They spent the first week blasting off 2-litre bottles with water and air pressure. They worked as a team to disassemble and reassemble an entire PC computer, all components part by part.  They tested their teamwork and computational skills at Math Jeopardy. B.U.I.L.T. attendees learned about the human muscular system while creating working, life-size robot hands. The displayed their nautical skill by constructing aluminum foil ships and seeing how much weight their boats could hold.

The YC B.U.I.L.T. summer program has made lasting positive impacts in youth while providing a safe place to spend the summer with friends.

2013 YLP Washington D.C. Service Trip

In April, 13 youth leaders and 2 adult staff from the Youth Leadership Program traveled to the Steinbruck Center for Urban Studies in Washington, D.C. for an out-of-state service trip. During our week in Washington, DC, we had excellent opportunities to learn about homelessness, poverty and justice issues through our volunteer work with a variety of organizations including DC Central Kitchen, Bread for the City, and Habitat for Humanity Restore.  As volunteers, we cooked and served meals to the homeless, distributed clothing and toiletries, helped organize and clean the Habitat Restore hardware store, and bagged groceries for the homeless and poor.  Through the Steinbruck Center, we were able to learn about the reasons for the great economical divide in Washington, D.C., and why so many people there are suffering from such poverty.  Additionally, we were able to see and explore the amazing historical landmarks within D.C., such as The White House, Lincoln Memorial,  Vietnam Memorial, This was an extremely empowering trip for our youth, and we hope to return to Washington, D.C. in the future.

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Read about our recent YLP trip to Washington D.C.:

2012 YLP Appalachian Mountain Service Trip

Early in the summer of 2012, 13 local youth leaders spent a week on an out-of-state service trip to the Appalachian Mountains. As part of the Youth Crossroads Inc. Youth Leadership Program they chose the Appalachian Mountains as the location of their annual service trip because the region of the country is stricken with poverty. As one youth leader, Cindy Camacho, put it “I always thought that poverty only existed outside the United States. But the past three service trips that I have attended put an end to my naivete. There are people who suffer, there are people who don’t have a place to lay their head, and most importantly, there are people who smile even on their darkest days. Their will to live a happy life, despite their environment, is probably one of the most remarkable things I have witnessed while volunteering.”

In preparation for their trip, youth participated in cultural awareness education, spoke to community leaders about their trip, and were responsible for raising roughly six thousand dollars. In May, three of the leaders spoke at the Cicero Town Hall meeting. Town President Larry Dominick generously contributed $500 towards the trip!

While in West Virginia, the youth volunteered at the South Appalachian Labor School. There they helped with a summer school program that focused on reading retention. They also assisted with a construction project to renovate an abandoned school into a new community center. They also learned more about the Appalachian region and rural poverty. Angelita Ruiz put it like this,

“Although we were there to help others, they helped us experience and learn about a new culture that we were oblivious existed in our own country.”