Breakthrough Youth Network

What if every inner-city youth had access to career opportunities?

Photo of Carrie Wall
1 1

Written by

Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

In 2000, Bill Curry found himself in a cross-cultural situation where he didn’t understand the challenges of the East Garfield Park community. Bill questioned 50 area youth about their likes and dislikes of current youth programs and met with 25 school teachers and youth leaders to learn about their individual challenges. He discovered that the school teachers and youth leaders were burning out. To support this, youth stated that the adults in their lives were turning over quickly. Bill studied research from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation that discussed the positive effects of mentoring; however, these positive effects only occur if the mentoring relationships last longer than 12 months. Knowing that the average relationship lasts 6 months, Bill questioned if they were doing more harm than good. If relationships were ending prematurely, were they indirectly teaching youth that over time, they can’t trust adults and their involvement in their lives? Bill realized how interdependent the adult world is for individuals to succeed. Successful adults have figured out the power of social capital and the value of mentoring. In contrast, many youth-serving organizations tell kids to simply work hard, which doesn’t take into account the histories of classism and racism. These recognitions led to the Breakthrough Network Model that combines working hard with skills and relationships to create opportunity that is the foundation of the BYN.

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • White (for example: German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French, Caucasian)


Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • Illinois

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]


Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • Illinois

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

Chicago, East Garfield Park neighborhood

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

In East Garfield Park, there is an issue of low academic achievement of youth from disadvantaged backgrounds, a need to cultivate positive behaviors in early developmental stages, and there are no STEAM-training programs for youth in walking distance in the community. Additionally, it is evident that there are not many protective factors for young people and families in the community, and there is a critical need to provide safe spaces that promote community engagement and contribute to a higher quality of life. This lack of access to basic services, education, and recreational spaces negatively impacts the daily needs of youth and families, creating increased stress and trauma that leads to detrimental health consequences, negative health behaviors, and unproductive choices.

Breakthrough knows that education and youth development are key to a healthy and stable community and is pursuing quality academic enrichment as a means for positive community development and academic success. Breakthrough’s focus on education not only includes a student’s academic performance, but also a whole-family focus that works collectively to overcome the generational forces of poverty. At Breakthrough, families have leadership, volunteer opportunities, and input into their child’s education. Through education and building a network of relationships, Breakthrough is able to make a powerful long-term impact on breaking the cycle of poverty in East Garfield Park by leveraging both local resident partnerships and a significant track record of long-term success. For over 16 years, this model has allowed Breakthrough to work alongside families and create a new culture around education in East Garfield Park.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Low-income communities

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Childcare
  • Child and Family Services
  • Community Development and Empowerment
  • Education

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Established (the solution has passed the previous stages, and has demonstrated success)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

Caela joined Breakthrough in 2nd grade as a participant in after-school programs and initially began building relationships with Breakthrough staff mentors. Over time as Caela became involved in the Summer Studies program, basketball league, and running club, she met more volunteer adults. When it came time for Caela to consider summer internships, she was already connected to a supportive group of individuals who had opportunities for her. Caela’s demonstration of personal work ethic and commitment to excellence in her own life has led to her sophomore year in college as a Posse Scholar. With her hard work and network that she’s built over a decade, there is a strong possibility that she will fulfill her goal of being a sports journalist.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

Breakthrough has found that afterschool programs offer a safe haven for students dealing with difficult home and community situations and provide them with the opportunities to succeed. The BYN, hosted in the state-of-the-art FamilyPlex, serves over 700 students annually and made a large impact in FY15. For the Breakthrough Beginners program, 75% of Breakthrough Beginners students were kindergarten ready and had mastered curriculum content. For the NBSAP students, 78% of 8th graders went on to attend top Chicago high schools. 95% of NBSAP students participated in the Arts and Science Academy, and 72% of parents engaged in quality partnership opportunities with Breakthrough. The Sports and Fitness Academy offered over 60 sports offerings, and 76% of participants demonstrated teamwork and positive social behaviors.

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $1mil - $5mil

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

Breakthrough has been operating for nearly 25 years, 16 of which have been successfully running youth development programs, and is fortunate to have a diverse funding base. Over 51% of support comes from individual donors. In addition, Breakthrough receives funding from a robust portfolio of foundations, corporations, government sources, and churches.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

There are few other early childhood and afterschool programs within East Garfield Park. Breakthrough’s innovative design includes 1) the state-of-the-art FamilyPlex facility, 2) a strong focus on parent partnership, 3) diverse, leveled programming for beginner, intermediate, and advanced learners, 4) the Breakthrough Network Model that surrounds young people with multiple mentors, 5) the Breakthrough “Opportunity Formula” combining hard work, skills, and relationships to create opportunity, and 6) the dedication of staff to the community.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

The educational landscape in Chicago is ever-changing, and the cycle of teachers is challenging on the wellbeing of children. Breakthrough’s ISU partnership signifies an important shift within education that will strengthen the pipeline of qualified, quality teachers to the highest need districts in Illinois. Also, as a community-based organization, Breakthrough is in a position to have leverage to foster intergenerational relationships at events such as Home Court, a community basketball tournament during the summer.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Email

1 comment

Join the conversation:

Photo of Randi Rubenstein

Hi Carrie,
Thank you for this well-written submission. I wonder how your program compares with other after school programs like Boys and Girls Clubs. I know there wasn't a lot of space available to write up this section. Looking forward to learning more about your valuable program. Keep up the great work!