Veterans in Chicago are keeping students safe in one of the most dangerous regions of Chicago by being present as the students walk to school. The Safe Passage Program, founded in 2011 by a non-profit organization called Leave No Veteran Behind (LNVB), has two purposes: to reduce the violence in these areas and to pay off the student debt of veterans.
Since the program began, over 400 veterans have passed through. LNVB has paid back over $150,000 of their student loans through the Retroactive Scholarship Program in exchange for 100-400 hours of community service that the veterans are also paid for. The schedule allows the employees to also have the daytime to search for a job.
“This isn’t just volunteerism, but actual work,” Eli Williamson, co-founder of Leave No Veteran Behind, told The Huffington Post. “It provides flexibility to go and look for alternate employment.”
Though the city of Chicago, known for its high crime-rate, has seen steadily declining murder rates since the peak in the early-1990s, some neighborhoods remain comparatively violent. A crime gap has divided these dangerous neighborhoods, where the murder rates can be 10 times the rest of the city. The students that walk through these neighborhoods every day to get to school often face dangerous situations, which is where the Safe Passage Program helps.
“This has visibly decreased youth violence in these areas,” Williamson told HuffPost.
On any given day, 130 veterans are employed through the program and are dispatched to an area surrounding the corner of 35th street and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Chicago, an intersection for five high schools that have gang affiliations. The veterans also service other dangerous areas, and their presence aids in providing positive interactions free from violence.
The program doubled the number of Safe Passage workers in 2013, after dozens of schools were closed and the commute for many students increased. Violence near Safe Passage routes was also being reported at the time, which the program worked to eliminate by increasing their presence.
The Safe Passage Program works alongside the Chicago Police Department, crossing guards, as well as a number of community outreach programs that support and expand their efforts. Williamson plans to extend the reach of the organization’s positive impact by expanding their presence in the next year.
Bernard Cooks, a Safe Passage Program veteran, told NPR, “Our intention is to be here until the last day so kids can figure out that, ‘Hey, there’s somebody that actually cares about our safety,’ and they can feel confident going up and down these streets.”
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