Corazón is the Spanish word for “heart,” and Corazón Community Services team members have huge hearts for the youth they serve meals to through the Summer Meals program. Corazón operates Fuerza Youth Center in Cicero, IL, and has participated in the Summer Meals program since 2007. For many kids, Fuerza is a second home. “The kids know that if they need anything, they can come to us,” said Ishmael “Izzy” Vargas Jr., Director of Youth Services.
Without the Summer Meals program, it would be impossible for Fuerza to provide food for their youth. “We have kids that we know are struggling and don’t have much to eat, so it’s a big help for us,” said Vargas. Fuerza serves about 55 meals daily.
Vargas attributes the success of the center and the meal program to the local community members who staff Fuerza. “We hire people who live here, and give them an opportunity to serve their own community. It gives us a lot in terms of being able to connect with the youth. And if you are from the community, you have a lot of passion for it and you’ll stay longer.” In fact, Vargas himself is a member of the Cicero community and was first hired by Corazón in 2006 – his freshman year of college. His passion for the community and kids who live there is apparent in his work and the relationships he has built with those they serve.
As important as these meals are for the kids at Fuerza, the youth center provides much more than a free meal. Angelo Rivera Sr. – another longtime staff member at the center – said, “We do it all.” Vargas and Rivera want the youth center to be seen as a safe haven. “We do have violence that happens in our community, so we want to keep the kids off the street as much as possible.” Kids know that Fuerza is a safe place for them to come have a meal, play, relax, and have fun with their friends.
One of Fuerza’s primary goals is to teach kids strategies to cope with and reduce stress. “They are overwhelmed at school and at home,” said Rivera. He teaches the kids meditation and martial arts at the center, and dance instructors come in occasionally as well.
Fuerza motivates kids to work hard in school and continue their education. The staff works to help teens prep for college by taking them on college visits, helping them register for SAT/ACT testing, helping them fill out applications, and even working with them to find scholarships and tuition help.
They also instill a giving and appreciative spirit in their youth. Vargas takes them out each Christmas Eve to deliver blankets and other supplies to the homeless. “It’s really pushed them to be appreciative of what they have,” said Vargas, adding that many of the kids have felt very moved by the need in the community.
According to Vargas, the fact that Fuerza is able to provide meals through the Summer Meals program is what enables the rest of the work that they do. The meals draw kids to the center, and it also helps the youth center stand out to parents.
To learn more about Corazón Community Services and the Fuerza Youth Center, check out their website.