Alternatives, Inc.

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Chicago, Ill.
(773) 506-7474

Objective: To provide comprehensive youth and family services.

In a Nutshell: Alternatives offers an array of services to youth and parents, focused on leadership development, counseling, academic enrichment, and violence and substance abuse prevention. Specific opportunities include after-school and summer programs, peer mediation and juries, employment training, a community technology center, juvenile justice diversion, and 24-hour crisis intervention for runaway and homeless youth.

Where It Happens: The center is located in Chicago’s Uptown community. Programming also takes place in schools, parks and other facilities on Chicago’s northeast side.

When It Began: Alternatives was founded in 1971.

Who Started It: A group of community residents founded Alternatives to address youth drug abuse in the neighborhood, originally providing counseling services and programs for at-risk teens. The founders focused on participants’ entrepreneurial spirit, creating income-generating projects such as a print shop and a coffee shop.

After reaching out to attract the growing Southeast Asian community in the 1980s, Alternatives instituted career training, violence prevention and community empowerment programs. The organization is in the midst of a five-year campaign to expand its physical space and volunteer involvement in its programs.

Who Runs It: Executive Director Judith Gall, a social worker who formerly directed a Chicago-area cultural exchange center. Gall oversees a staff of 35. About 175 volunteers support Alternatives programming.

Early Obstacle: Early youth programs such as a coffee house, photography classes and a drop-in center were all successful, says Gall. However, they were dispersed through several neighborhoods, which made them difficult to manage with a small staff.

How They Overcame It: The agency created a central office for all staff, while maintaining program services in various community locations by partnering with local churches, schools and other nonprofits.

Cost: The annual operating budget is $1.9 million. Some of the programs have small participation fees.

Who Pays: Sixty percent of Alternatives’ funds are public; the largest grants are from the Illinois Department of Human Services ($720,000) and the Chicago Department of Human Services ($178,000).

Who Else Has Kicked In: About 35 percent of Alternatives funding comes from corporations and foundations – including the Chicago Community Trust, Polk Bros. Foundation and Chicago Tribune Charities – and from community organizations such as the Night Ministry, Chicago Health Outreach, Chicago Area Project and After School Matters.

Youth Served: About 3,000 young people (ages 10 to 24) from Chicago’s Northeast side each year. Participants are 40 percent Latino, 37 percent African American and 10 percent Caucasian. Two-thirds live in low-income households, and one-third live in single-parent homes. While most young people participate voluntarily, juvenile courts refer approximately 80 youth annually. 

Youth Turn-On: The chance to join activities that few of them would have access to otherwise, such as circus arts classes, designing a youth art studio, developing a community garden and hip-hop classes.

Youth Turn-Off: In counseling, youth are reluctant to address substance abuse issues and difficult family dynamics. Other complaints some youth have, according to Gall: too many rules; too academic at times, not enough “fun programs” on the weekend or enough job opportunities.

Research Shows: Internally compiled statistics show that 75 percent of families participating in Alternatives crisis intervention services are reunified, and 70 percent of youth in the juvenile justice diversion program successfully complete the six-month program requirements. Among youth in Alternatives’ peer juror program, 90 percent demonstrated improved problem-solving and listening skills. Alternatives’ peer jury program has been adopted by the Chicago Public School system and is being implemented in 25 city schools.

What Still Gets in the Way: “Paperwork,” laments Gall. “People’s passion is to work directly with youth and to focus on their strengths – not to fit their work into categories of needs and problems in monthly statistical reports.” Also, current funding sustains existing programs but has not allowed room to expand capacity or improve infrastructure.