Story, photos, and video by Cicely Teal, Essence McDowell
and Stephanie Williams
In recent years, Chicago streets have been a battleground for Chicago Public School students. Many have lost their lives to youth violence.
One of the efforts to alleviate the problem is the True Star Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides a creative outlet in the form of literary and professional development programs for youth.
“We want True Star to be the voice of young people,” said True Star executive director and co-founder, DeAnna McLeary. “Our goal is to educate and empower urban youth.”
McLeary and NaTae’ Thompson began True Star in the Fall of 2004 with 17 students in a journalism program. It has since grown to 14 programs and more than 300 students getting hands-on experience in major areas of mass media that includes journalism, marketing and publishing.
The True Star Magazine, the main component of the foundation, is created and produced by the teens within the after-school program. The magazine is a free quarterly publication geared to an urban teen market.
The magazine’s mission is to inform, educate, entertain and serve by addressing everyday issues through life experiences and critical thinking. The magazine creates a relatable voice for young people, so the editorial team focuses on and openly discusses topics and issues that are affecting teenagers.
“We want to show them greater opportunities in life by allowing them to speak freely about things that affect them and be able to effectively analyze and disseminate positive messages,” Thompson said.
The True Star foundation partners with After School Matters, Chicago Public Schools (CPS), and the Young Men’s Christian Association YMCA. After School Matters is recognized as one of the strongest after-school initiatives nationwide and is acknowledged as the largest program of its kind, serving teenagers across the United States.
True Star is also supported by the McCormick Tribune Foundation, Chicago Department of Public Health, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, Department of Children & Youth Services (CYS) and Chicago Girls Coalition.
In 2010, True Star was recognized by the city of Chicago and awarded a $35,000 Community Development Block Grant. This grant allows True Star to supply their students with bus cards, digital equipment and supplies. True Star teens are kept in the loop about today’s digital divide and are taught to use digital media for the dissemination of news. The web blogging team creates the True Star blog, Truestraris.com.
The most successful aspect of the True Star foundation is its Summer programs. The largest student enrollment occurs in late June, when it increases to more than 250 students. A True Star research program found that during the summertime months, Chicago Public school students are more likely to be in danger of being affected by criminal activities and other high-risk behaviors.
“I live in an area where it’s very easy to fall through the cracks and become just another statistic,” said Melody Howard, a senior at Big Picture High School in Chicago. “True Star has been my safe haven where drugs, guns, pregnancies, gossip and violence doesn’t have to be a worry of mine unless I’m writing about it.”
True Star’s circulation numbers have been doubled since its first distribution of 15,000. The magazine is distributed in places with a heavy teen presence, including 39 Chicagoland McDonald’s, Boys and Girls Clubs and 35 youth centers. The publication’s motto is “we are, where teens are.”
The founders are looking to expand True Star into two additional markets and increase frequency to six issues per year and 65 pages from the current 52 pages. Beginning in the 2010-11 academic school year, True Star magazine will establish “True Star Jr.,” a newsletter produced by elementary school students at Woodson Elementary, the University of Chicago’s Charter School.
“We plan to include all the elements of True Star into our Jr. program; graphic design, radio, and photography,” Executive Director Safiya Edwards said. “We are building on this youth Foundation platform so that all children in every grade level can become media moguls, social entrepreneurs and sustainable business creators.”