United Way of Metro Chicago’s AmeriCorps program inspires volunteers to become community leaders by making a difference in the communities where they live and work. And, some of these volunteers are teaching youth in their neighborhood that they, too, can lead. This year, United Way’s Neighborhood Network lead agency in Cicero, Cicero Community Collaborative (CCC), created a virtual program to increase opportunities for young people to advocate for the needs of their community.

The Youth Ambassadors Program provides a stipend and leadership skills to Cicero residents ages 15 through 17 to help them develop projects that will improve the community. Through our AmeriCorps partnership with CCC, Sam Gamino and Jose Pantoja, AmeriCorps volunteers at Cicero Youth Crossroads, lead these young ambassadors on their 12-week journey.

Yadira Martinez, CCC’s coordinator is impressed with the program because, “it is giving a leadership initiative to our community members at such a young age. Advocacy, having a voice and realizing that the community is only going to get stronger if you voice what is needed.”

United Way’s Neighborhood Network Initiative supports programs like CCC’s Youth Ambassadors because it instills a leadership mindset in our youth, just as United Way’s AmeriCorps volunteer program works to build the leaders of tomorrow.

The eight ambassadors, with the help of Sam and Jose, held ongoing group discussions to reflect on their experiences living in Cicero and created two projects that would benefit them and their neighbors.

For one project, the ambassadors established food vouchers for the elders and families that CCC serves. Each voucher is worth $40 to supplement grocery store costs. These young leaders created a budget, project management and distribution plans all on their own.

For another initiative, they plan on painting the town with an uplifting mural to put a smile on the faces of all Cicero residents. The name of the mural is “You are enough” or “Tú eres suficiente.” The mural will be painted in English and Spanish later this year.

Sam and Jose noted how difficult it was to keep the youth engaged virtually. However, they used what they learned from their AmeriCorps professional development training to keep the ambassadors on track to reach their goals. By teaching them goal-setting techniques, each participant had a better idea on how to move forward with their projects.

“It’s nice to see people at that age try to make a difference in the community because a lot of people want to do that, but they don’t know how to or they don’t take the steps to. But these kids are,” said Jose.

The Youth Ambassadors Program is offering young people jobs and instilling them with the confidence to work in and for their community. Sam and Jose also cultivated their own leadership skills while working closely with the ambassadors. CCC is building a better and stronger neighborhood through youth-led initiatives like this one.

“The youth are our future. So it’s important for them to see these programs from a young age because they will have the power to make a greater impact,” Jose reflected.

When you give to United Way, you support the AmeriCorps volunteer program where leaders like Sam and Jose are building a better future for their community. Donate today!


By Jessica Jones, AmeriCorps Multimedia Journalist