Group photo of workforce development class at Cornerstone Community Development Corporation

Ashanti Johnson and fellow participants in Cornerstone Community Development Corporation's workforce development program

Ashanti Johnson wants to be a pharmacy technician. Also a security guard and small business owner. And a nurse.

She’s working to make her future career – all of them – a reality.

With eight siblings, Ashanti is used to juggling multiple responsibilities – and she wouldn’t have it any other way. She and her siblings are like a “pack of lions in a den,” she said. They are fiercely loyal, always looking out for each other. In high school, when Ashanti would come home after track practice, she made sure her younger siblings had a healthy snack like an apple or clementine.

Ashanti and her family are from the south suburbs of Chicago. She was born and raised in Markham, and now, at 22, she recently moved into her first apartment in nearby Ford Heights. The village is small, with a population of just 1,800. Despite more than 37% of its residents living in poverty, Ford Heights is a tight-nit, welcoming community.

“I’ve connected with a lot of people who been here for generations on generations,” Ashanti said. “I feel like the community brings a lot of effort and attention and focus on each other. They love each other here. I am totally accepted here, and I feel loved.”

But when Ashanti moved to Ford Heights, she was at a crossroads. “I was at a point in my life where I didn’t know what I was going to do. I couldn’t afford college. I didn’t have a good paying job,” she said. Amid these challenges, Ashanti’s new community embraced her. So much so that a neighbor recommended Ashanti for the workforce development program at Cornerstone Community Development Corporation.

The local nonprofit is the lead agency of the Ford Heights/Chicago Heights Neighborhood Network, which was launched in June 2023 in partnership with United Way of Metro Chicago and Cook County’s Transforming Places Program. Cornerstone is building the new Network’s coalition and refining its vision and goals for strengthening the community.

Cornerstone Community Development Corporation provides wrap-around services for residents, including homelessness prevention, anti-hunger initiatives, and vocational training. Last month, Ashanti graduated from the workforce development program. After six weeks of training, she is receiving certifications in construction forklift and flagger, first aid and CPR, and armed and unarmed security.

Ashanti said these certifications will open up new job opportunities and provide financial stability, while helping her take the next steps in her career.

“I feel like this program helped put a career in my path and helped me be able to eventually afford college,” Ashanti said. “Now I’m certified, and I’m a professional and have the skills for the work I want to do.”

Ashanti is excited to start applying for a security job, thanks to her recent certifications from Cornerstone. She then plans to take college courses to become a pharmacy technician or a nurse. She also wants to run a beauty products business.

As Ashanti continues to plant her roots in Ford Heights and pursue her dreams, one thing is certain. Her community will be there, cheering her along.

“I’m just happy to be here,” Ashanti said. “I’m happy to meet the people that I met, the friends and the relationships that I have with people now. This community brought forth more than what I needed. I’ll forever be grateful.”

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