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Promoting Community Safety Through Safe Passage

We can make the world better by each contributing our grain of sand.

This is what motivates Señora Verónica Hernández to serve as a Safe Passage base operator in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, despite Chicago’s unpredictable climate and the dangerous situations that she often encounters. The Safe Passage Program is designed to provide safe routes for students traveling to and from Chicago Public Schools by posting community watchers around the schools during their morning and afternoon commutes. Señora Hernández has served as a community watcher at Hamline Elementary School for the past six years, and took on the role of base operator in 2020.

Although Señora Hernández does not live in Back of the Yards, she feels a strong sense of community solidarity with the parents, students, teachers, school leadership, fellow Safe Passage workers, and other residents who live in the vicinity of the school. She has noted increased trust among community members since the time that she first began her post at Hamline. Although there are still community members who question the role of the Safe Passage workers, the response that they receive is overwhelmingly positive and appreciative of their efforts to protect students during their school arrival and departure. As Señora Hernández greets students and parents each day, parents naturally begin to speak with her about the struggles that they face. Señora Hernández regularly shares information about community resources, including utility assistance, health insurance options, and food resources. Señora Hernández’s knowledge of community resources has been especially important in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. She has helped parents obtain free WiFi so that their children could take part in e-learning, and he has shared information about free breakfast and lunch options. Her relationships are not limited to members of the school community. She has gotten to know many older adults who live in the neighborhood, and the information that she shares with them is an important lifeline for individuals who are isolated from family and friends.

Señora Hernández has experienced dangerous and tragic events during her time as a Safe Passage worker. The Back of the Yards community is disproportionately impacted by structural inequities, and violent crime is a daily reality for community residents. Señora Hernández has witnessed drive-by shootings and assaults, and over the past six years she has been told the heartbreaking news of Hamline students who were killed due to gun violence on multiple occasions. Señora Hernández has persisted in her role in the midst of this heartbreak and tragedy. There have been countless times where Señora Hernández and her colleagues have saved lives by reporting a shooting to police and school staff before students were dismissed from school. Señora Hernández has also had the privilege of seeing students who have graduated from school and have returned to greet her and share the news of their successes. When students return to recount their successes and share the goals that they have accomplished, Señora Hernández describes these moments as “watching the seeds that we have cultivated grow and flourish.”

As a mother of adolescent children, Señora Hernández puts herself in the shoes of the Hamline Elementary parents when she prepares to go to work each day. She watches out for the Hamline students just as she would hope that others would watch out for her own children. The trusting relationships that she has developed with students and parents is a reflection of Señora Hernández’s unwavering care and commitment to the school community who she tirelessly serves. Señora Hernández’s story is a testament to the positive change that can occur in communities when dedicated leaders contribute their grain of sand.

Safe Passage Manager, Joanna, with a community watcher outside of Sandoval Elementary.