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Daily Journal
     March 30, 2022      #28-89 KDJ
Kankakee City Life Center Director Aaron Clark sits in the main room at the East Kankakee center. Through his work with the center, Kankakee School District 111, and the city’s police department, it can be argued that Clark has become the face of anti-violence in Kankakee County.

Daily Journal

Aaron Clark is facing violence head-on 

By Taylor Leddin

Between nearly a decade with Kankakee City Life Center, working with Kankakee School District 111 through the S.T.O.P the Violence campaign and the Theraplay program — and working with the City of Kankakee to build a bridge between youth and law enforcement — it’s safe to say Aaron Clark has become the face of anti-violence in Kankakee County.

Because of his never-ending work to better the community, Clark is being honored as an Innovator in Social Services as part of the Daily Journal’s 2022 Progress Awards.

“It’s humbling, it really is,” Clark said of the award, noting that he loves what he does and never is looking for recognition.

“I really appreciate it because I do work hard, and I do want to bless my city.”

Building bridges

Currently serving as City Life’s director, Clark has worked with thousands upon thousands of the county’s youth. His latest program through the center is a movement called “Kankakee Forgives,” which he says “has the potential to bring crime to its knees in Kankakee.”

This is the start of a larger campaign that will involve the whole family, as when kids respond to forgiveness, “it inevitably impacts the whole household.”

“A city that forgives is a city that can heal,” Clark said, touching on recent shootings by saying there is “anger coming out of guns.” While he was speaking about events within the City of Kankakee, he noted that the movement is a county-wide initiative.

In a recent presentation during the monthly Mental Health Network of Kankakee County’s roundtable, local youth spoke about how learning about forgiveness through the program has helped change their lives.

Tywon Mosely, 20, shared that forgiveness was hard at first. But when he began taking the steps, he said “it made my life easier.”

Clark shared that the teaching of forgiveness at City Life Center has made “a dramatic impact” on participants. This impact includes increased attendance, significant progress, decreased incidents, improved morale, higher retention rate, improved parental relationships and reduced stress for the team.

With seeing the impact achieved so far, the organization can start to expand beyond its walls and will be going door-to-door to ask residents if they’d be willing to place a “Kankakee Forgives” sign in their yard to spread awareness.

In addition to increasing awareness, the group looks to engage the community’s youth and adults in practicing forgiveness and conducting tailored interventions at the start of the school year to encourage less anger and more forgiveness.

In addition to working with families, the next phase includes group therapy sessions.

“This is not a once-and-done, this is ongoing,” said Clark, who is involved with other county-wide programs to help combat violence.

Police stops & rallies

Last year, Clark, along with Kankakee United and the Kankakee Police Department — in conjunction with Illinois Coalition for Community Services and Youth For Christ’s City Life Center — started a program that brought attention to the relationship between the community and law enforcement.

This program serves as a role- reversal where youth are able to put on a police badge and go through the process of pulling over a civilian, a role played by a police officer.

“The future of the Police Stops initiative is a healthy relationship between the community and local law enforcement,” Clark said. “The goal is to create a trusted bridge between the community and law enforcement.

“As these events continue to grow, it will alleviate some of the tensions that stem from an unhealthy perception of our relationship.”

There have been several events open to the community where they can participate in this police stop workshop. About a dozen youth participated at a back-to-school event at Kankakee High School.

Sofia Alvarado, of Kankakee, had participated in a program earlier this year and brought her children — Mariel Camargo, a high school senior, and Humberto Camargo, a college freshman — to experience it for themselves.

“Since [my kids] got their driver’s licenses not too long ago, I wanted them to know what to do if or when the police stops one of them,” Alvarado said.

Also last summer, Clark hosted a rally to address recent deadly violence. The event drew over 100 people.

With the rally, Clark’s goal was not only to inform the community about what they can do to help, but to call upon existing efforts to join forces.

“A lot of different people are doing a lot of different things. A lot of different people are having a significant impact in the lives of a few children,” he said.

But, he said, there must be coordination among the many people who are working through various programs to help deal with violence, drugs, gangs and other social issues claiming the community’s youth.

He said the community must bear one another’s burdens.

“The issue is we need to bring our efforts together,” he stressed. “As I say that, I know it is not easy bringing organizations together. It can be messy. But the mess only gets worse if we don’t work together. Children need us.”

About Aaron

“What really inspired me to work with youth is that my father abandoned me when I was really young, and I started getting into a lot of trouble in my teen years and early adult life,” Clark said.

Born at AMITA Health St. Mary’s in Kankakee, Clark attended all Kankakee schools.

He got married at 21 and had his first child at 22.

While he says the birth of his daughter made things “real,” it didn’t quite stop him from his pattern of trouble.

Through his sister, Clark met a pastor by the name of Wayne Thompson who helped him change his act.

“If he had not loved me and dealt with me and mentored me, I cannot say that I would be here today, let alone in this building,” he said during a conversation at the City Life Center building on East Court Street in Kankakee.

When asked what keeps him motivated day in and day out, he said “the stories.”

“Just seeing life after life after life change and young men and women saying, ‘Man, this saved my life.’”

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From left, Tywon Mosley, Rosa Perez, Aaron Clark and Brooklyn Harby each took turns presenting and answering questions during Friday’s Mental Health Network of Kankakee County’s monthly roundtable event, focused on the movement “Kankakee Forgives.”

Daily Journal/Taylor Leddin