"You survive because the fire inside burns brighter than the fire around you."
This is Jayy’s* favorite quote. He first heard it from one of his teachers, when the two were talking about the impact people in his life have made to help him overcome his troubled past. And he has really taken those words to heart.
Jayy speaks with spirited and strong conviction when talking about how, with Cunningham’s help, he moved from a youth on the streets to a CIRCLE Academy high school graduate to now, a fulltime employee.
"School was hard for me, but I still went no matter how difficult others made it for me," Jayy said. "I wanted the education I deserved."
Jayy had a challenging homelife. He grew up in Danville and started attending CIRCLE Academy in Rossville but was in a very unstable housing situation. He ended up homeless, living on the streets and in a toxic and unhealthy relationship. It was only at school where he consistently had meals and felt compassion from adults and leaders.
He moved to Rantoul seeking a fresh start but again found himself homeless. Out of concern for his wellbeing, the CIRCLE staff referred him to Cunningham’s Runaway and Homeless Youth (RHY) program. Jayy transitioned to CIRCLE Academy in Urbana and RHY provided emergency shelter which offered him a safer space to continue his education.
"I grew up with a lot of my family going to prison or abusing drugs and I didn’t want that to be my story," Jayy said. "I kept telling myself, ‘You’ve made it this far why give up now?’"
RHY services focus on the development and lifelong skills that produce sustainable housing, employment, relationships, and linkages to community resources.
One of the many, and perhaps most important, things Chalaine, Cunningham’s RHY Program Coordinator, and Marco, Jayy’s RHY Case Manager, helped him with was acquiring a housing voucher. Having a stable living situation gave Jayy the freedom to pursue fulltime employment and focus on his future.
"Marco and Chalaine have helped me work on my anxiety around my housing situation," Jayy said. "When I was angry and stubborn, Marco would always find a way to understand me. They helped me realize that I can’t be angry at the world or at people I don’t even know. Chalaine and Marco gave me confidence by letting me know there was someone I could depend on, that they’ve got my back."
Chalaine and Marco are among those Jayy credits for helping him look at life differently. There have been many teachers who challenged him in the classroom and showed care and compassion, community leaders who gave their time to ensure his safety, coaches that encouraged him on the basketball court and school staff that gave him different opportunities like being published in the Cunningham school newspaper. He emphasized that even the smallest of things can have the biggest outcomes.
"Take all the help that comes your way," he said. "Don’t be too proud because it can really be what changes your life. "Even when I’ve been down and didn’t think I could keep going, I told myself I am worth it and to take a step, any step, to better my situation. Remember you can be who you believe yourself to be."
Chalaine lights up with pride when she thinks about Jayy’s progression.
"Jayy has come such a long way in our program," Chalaine said. "He is successfully housed in his own apartment, working fulltime at Dollar Tree, a job he has maintained for a while now, and has really evolved with his coping skills and anger management."
*Jayy uses he/him pronouns