Coworker Corner: Andre Simmons
There is a quote that has always stuck out to Andre Simmons: “you don’t know what you don’t know.” This quote is at the center of what inspired him to help young people in need.
“Oftentimes the reason kids do not take advantage of opportunities is because they don’t know that they exist,” Andre explained. “Growing up, I had great mentors and teachers that were always pushing me and my siblings and giving us access to these great opportunities. I wanted to make sure I pass that along.”
Andre began helping youth when he was in high school at Simeon Career Academy (and yes, he did go to school with former Chicago Bull Derrick Rose—a fun fact that our kids love). He worked as an after-school tutor for kids who attended Yale Elementary in Englewood, the same elementary school he attended. Once he began college, he also worked at the Chicago Park District over the summer, helping kids find positive ways to spend their time.
“Working with the park district was really great,” he said. “[I liked] staying in that mode of working with youth and helping keep them safe and keeping them involved and out of trouble, out of the streets. And I always just wanted to continue that.”
When Andre began attending Eastern Illinois University, he joined a co-ed dance team to meet new people. He had never been on a dance team before—“I’ve always just kind of danced around a little bit here and there when I was a teenager but I never took it seriously,” he said—but decided to try out anyway. After making the team, he realized that he had a natural talent for dancing. And as it turned out, the dance team also provided a connection for him to continue helping out the youth in Charleston, Ill., where the school is located.
When a youth comes here, they’re in a new environment, they’re around new people and new settings, and they’re away from home. It can be nerve-wracking … so it’s our job to make sure they are feeling comfortable.
As part of their community service, Andre’s dance team connected with an organization called Teen Reach. They met with the kids to teach them dance moves and help them learn skills like choreography and musicality. The kids were also able to watch the dance team compete in a competition and see Andre’s team win first place. Their excitement over seeing the performance sparked an idea amongst the team: to set up a performance in which the kids could participate. This performance also raised money for Teen Reach, which was experiencing financial struggles, and enough money was raised to keep the program open. Parents of the kids, as well as school administrators and others around Eastern’s campus attended the performance.
“It was the most amazing thing,” Andre said. “It was something special. And even now, just talking about it, it just brings up so many great memories because it was such a fun time. And we really appreciated how much of an impact and a difference we were able to make in keeping that facility open.”
After graduating college, Andre was working at the Field Museum when he realized he wasn’t feeling fulfilled in his current line of work. He had a friend who worked at Mercy Home and was able to give him some information about our mission. He was immediately interested in becoming part of it and was hired as a youth care worker in 2016.
[At the time], I was trying to get an idea of what it is that I enjoy doing the most [and] what work would really give me that sense of pride every day, getting up and knowing that I’m making a difference and that I’m helping others,” he explained.
He found that at Mercy Home. As a youth care worker who has worked in programs throughout the West Loop Campus with boys of all ages, Andre acts as an advocate for the kids and make sure that their needs are being met. Each week, he meets with his advocates and they discuss the youth’s progress on meeting his goals and working on a positive transition plan.
“It always starts with relationship building,” Andre said. “When a youth comes here, they’re in a new environment, they’re around new people and new settings, and they’re away from home. It can be nerve-wracking … so it’s our job to make sure they are feeling comfortable. We make sure that we’re putting things in place to keep them on the right track.”
The youth care workers also stay in communication with our kids’ parents. Because the ultimate goal is for our kids to return home if it’s safe to do so, Mercy Home works to keep the parents involved and offers them support as well. When it’s time for our kids to transition back home, it should be to a healthier environment where both the children and parents can practice skills they learned during the child’s time at our Home.
Andre was also able to bring his love of dance to Mercy Home. In the fall of 2019, he hosted a dancing after-school program for our boys every Sunday through early 2020. He was thrilled by the high turnout and our boys’ engagement in the sessions. Andre said that he began every session with a reminder to our boys to be respectful and encouraging to one another—something the boys embraced.
“When we started and the music was going, it was a positive environment where everybody was there to be free and have fun,” he said.
It’s easy to see that our youth care workers’ plates are full, but prioritizing self-care helps.
“We have to just take a moment to stop and embrace the here and now,” Andre said. “We understand how difficult the work can be at times, but it’s also still very rewarding. So it’s just making sure that we’re taking care of ourselves first in order to make sure we’re able to support the youth that we work with.”
Checking in with other coworkers also helps.
“At times it can pretty heavy [and stressful],” he said. “I always want to make sure the team knows that they can lean on me if they need anything. I’m always open to questions because when I first arrived, that’s how I was treated. It was just open [and] it was really great to have that opportunity to learn.”
The relationships that Andre has formed during his time at Mercy Home is what he cites as the best part of working here.
“I think it’s been amazing to work with such a wide variety of individuals who come from so many different backgrounds and have so much to offer in terms of their knowledge and life experience,” he said. “I pick up on that and use it for myself so the next youth I’m working with or [if] a team member is stuck, those things can really help.”
He also treasures the friendships he has made at Mercy Home.
“That has been the most fun,” he said. “I’ve been able to forge genuine friendships … we started off as just coworkers, but now we’re legitimate friends. That would definitely be the best part.”