Local nonprofit receives $1 million grant to provide safe space for Chicago youth

Future Ties prepares to expand after years of support from Community Programs Accelerator

Jennifer Maddox was shocked. Earlier this summer, she learned that Future Ties, the nonprofit she founded to provide a safe after-school and summer space for youth on Chicago’s South Side, had been chosen to receive a $1 million grant.

“I was in disbelief; a lot of different emotions came over me,” said Maddox, a Chicago police officer. “I just didn’t know what to do. I was crying. I could hardly talk.”

The funds will enable Maddox to finally relocate her organization from the cramped basement in the Parkway Gardens affordable housing complex in Woodlawn where she started Future Ties a decade ago to a larger nearby building. The extra space will allow her and Future Ties to start serving teens in addition to the elementary school children, and offer wraparound health and wellness services for their families.

The grant from health and fitness company Beachbody, given in partnership with advocacy group GO Campaign, was the latest milestone Future Ties has reached since becoming a participant in the University of Chicago’s Community Programs Accelerator in 2015. A program of the University’s Office of Civic Engagement, the Accelerator helps equip nonprofits that serve the South Side with tools and resources to fulfill their unique missions. For Future Ties, that has meant building the organization’s capacity to offer year-round mentoring, tutoring, and enrichment programs to low-income and at-risk youth.

“I got tired of watching my young people get gunned down in these streets,” said Maddox, who still works midnight shifts as a police officer. “I’ve been to so many different funerals of our young people who didn’t have anywhere else safe to go and socialize with their friends or be a part of any kind of programming or opportunities to have a job or any type of a resource that would keep them busy and occupied so I’ve been really working at this for a long time.”

Six years ago, when Future Ties first connected with the University, Maddox says the organization only had a name and a mission. 

“I didn’t have a logo, I didn’t have a strategic plan, I didn’t have my board up, I didn’t have anything,” Maddox said. “So, just going through the Accelerator, they were like, ‘Okay, this is what you need.’ I wouldn’t even exist if it wasn’t for the Accelerator. They called me all the time, they kept me going when I felt like it was just a no-win situation. They kept pushing me.”

The Accelerator supported Future Ties in everything from strategic planning and board and curriculum development to getting the organization’s website and social media up and running. Early on, much of the focus was on the most basic needs of a nonprofit: creating a budget, fundraising, and grant writing support. Over the years, that support helped Future Ties raise the funds needed to grow its annual budget from around $30,000 in 2015 to around $200,000 when it graduated out of the program in May.

In 2018, the Accelerator gave Future Ties a $50,000 grant, allowing Maddox to create a much-needed technology hub for young people and their parents in Parkway Gardens, among other improvements. The hub later helped make the organization’s shift to online programming during the COVID-19 pandemic seamless.

Maddox also seized opportunities to connect with University leaders, resources, and opportunities including the Civic Leadership Academy, a leadership development program led by the Harris School of Public Policy for leaders who work in nonprofits and local government agencies across Chicago from which she graduated in 2017.

Sharon Grant, executive director of the Community Programs Accelerator, says the years of hard work Future Ties has put into strengthening its infrastructure with the Accelerator positioned the organization for this pivotal moment.

“The Accelerator’s mission is to guide organizations in building the organizational resilience, programmatic strength, and human capacity to advance positive change in their neighborhoods and it has been amazing to see Future Ties’ transformative growth in all these areas,” Grant said. “Jennifer and her team are now at a place where her vision for Future Ties can be realized, preventing more community violence and trauma by providing a safe space for young people to learn and grow and for their families to access the resources they need.”

Plans for the new center feature a kitchen for teaching about healthy eating and nutrition, a gym for young people to play sports without concerns of neighborhood violence and other threats, as well as mental health counseling and wellness classes to teach families how to cope with trauma and manage their stress, anxiety, and PTSD.

On June 28, Maddox, her team, and representatives from the Accelerator and Beachbody, along with other community members celebrated with a kickoff event at the site of Future Ties’ new center. One young man who’d participated in Future Ties’ programming over the years told Maddox he’d asked for the day off work because he felt it was so important that he be there to honor the occasion.

“‘You told us you were going to do this and I had to see it,’” Maddox recalls the young man telling her. “Every time I tell that story it does something to me because that young man was there from the beginning and then he never got to see [the expanded center] come into play for him—but now he has a son, so his son can reap some of the benefits from the center, so I’m excited about that.

“I’m really just looking forward to seeing the faces of these kids when we open up and they walk through those doors like, ‘This is our space? You told us you were going to do this and here it is.’”

—This story was first published by the Office of Civic Engagement.