When he was 14, Travis Smith was a gang member in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green neighborhood, and life was going exactly as he expected.
In his neighborhood, joining a gang was what young people did. Smith considered the gang members his heroes and felt he was doomed to repeat the same cycle of fatherlessness he’d inherited.
“I believed I was going to be just like my dad, who had abandoned me,” Smith said. “In many ways, I didn’t know how it was affecting me.”
But one day, Smith was invited to an after-school tutoring club.
“It felt like Narnia to me because it was right in Cabrini-Green, but behind that door was the love and the power of Jesus Christ,” he said.
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When he finished a tour of By The Hand Club for Kids (BTH), he met the group’s founder, Donnita Travis. He got ready to shake her hand, but instead she gave him a hug.
At that moment, he understood the love of God.
“It was Donnita communicating to me, ‘I don’t need you to be a certain person or to accomplish a certain thing in order for me to love you. I love you. And I accept you, just as you are,’” Smith said.
“Donnita, who did not even know me, who did not even know that I was in a gang, it did not matter to her. She looked at me and she said, ‘This young man is valuable. This young man is loved by God. And I don’t need to know anything about him to know that I’m going to love him.’”
For nearly 20 years, BTH has served kids like Smith, who today is a college graduate and works at Olivet Nazarene University as a public safety officer. He also is a father, raising two sons and two daughters with his wife, Karissa Smith.
BTH began in 2001 with 16 kids, but has grown to include more than 1,600 children under the leadership of Travis, who started the club in partnership with a local mother.
“We take kids, literally, by the hand,” Travis said. “God takes us by the hand and then we take the kids by the hand. We walk with them holistically—mind, body, and soul. From the time they join, and they can join as early as kindergarten all the way through college and early career. And the concept is we just don’t let go.”
BTH cares for children by providing them with Bible lessons, food, medical care, dental care, and tutoring. With these programs, children get help in every area of life where they need it. Today, the club provides tutoring to children from kindergarten to high school.
“It’s hard to pay attention in school when you’re hungry, or you have tooth pain, or you have problems going on at home, or you don’t think there’s a reason to pay attention, because what does it matter?” she said. “You have to identify barriers, that are standing in the way of that child.”
Despair cuts kids off from education, said Travis. And the neighborhoods where BTH works have no shortage of despair.
In Altgeld-Murray, Austin, Englewood, Austin, and Cabrini Green, liquor stores outnumber grocery stores by nearly nine to one, Travis said.
Getting out of despair and into hope from these neighborhoods can be challenging. Former BTH student Malik Savage joined the club in third grade. He kept up good grades until eighth grade. But when kids at school mocked him for succeeding in school, he started skipping the club to hang out on the block with friends.
“We were up to no good,” he said.
When Savage and his friends attacked a boy, police charged Savage with mob action. That’s when he decided to return to BTH. He brought his grades back up and entered Howard University.
Today, Savage runs his own vending machine company and BTH has celebrated his achievements on their Facebook page.
“For the soul, (healing means) sharing the hope and peace that comes from knowing Jesus Christ, and knowing how to connect with him through the Word and through prayer,” Travis said. “That’s the biggest help of all, because that’s where we all get our hope for today.”
Sharing the Gospel happens in combination with meeting the material needs of kids. During COVID-19 lockdowns, BTH provided computers to kids who had none they could use to do lessons online.
“It has to be holistic,” Travis said. “If we shared Jesus, but we didn’t take care of the eyes and take care of the teeth, feed our children a healthy meal, have a pop up market providing fresh food, if we didn’t teach our kids to read, they would be saved. But what about here? What is that the abundant life here that I believe they all can have?”
One way BTH gives students abundant life is by showing kids care even when they have conflicts with others.
Fifth-grader Semaj struggled with anger when he first joined BTH. He had frequent conflicts with another student. But BTH still showed care for him.
“I was very excited when I came inside, and everyone was friendly to me,” he said. “They make me feel like I want to come to By The Hand, and I feel like I have people that care about me.”
Today, Semaj and the student he once quarrelled with are friends, and often sit at the same classroom table with each other.
“I used to have big anger issues, but now I understand what God did for me and share that with other people,” Semaj said.
The gospel-centered focus of BTH gives results that Chicago public schools can’t match, even with nearly twice the spending per child. BTH spends $6,106 per student each year, while Chicago’s public school system spends $11,976 per student.
BTH tutoring focuses on preparing kids to pursue a career and achieve success in school, said Smith.
Eighty-eight percent of BTH students graduate high school, compared to a less than 69% five-year graduation rate in local public schools, Travis said. In Chicago’s roughest neighborhoods, the chances that kids attend college are little more than a coin flip. But 86% of BTH kids attend college.
Travis credits her success to God’s help, as well as an effective leadership team. By hiring great leaders, creating a great culture, and putting great policies in place, BTH grew well and changed the lives of thousands of children.
“God chooses not to do it by himself, he chooses to do it through people,” Travis said. “And so people have to show up. But then God is faithful. (BTH is) Christ centered, people focused, results oriented.”
Despite the long hours, she puts in, Travis takes no salary for her work with BTH.
According to Charity Navigator’s giving recommendations, community organizations should spend a maximum of 20% on fundraising, with the rest going to program expenses. BTH spends only 11% of its budget on fundraising.
Yet the part of BTH’s program that participants mention most aren’t the programs or the curriculum. Instead, it’s the way the love they experienced changed them.
Travis Smith said that when he read BTH’s theme verse, John 10:10, he felt that it reflected his life.
The verse reads, “The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life.”
“I felt like my childhood was stolen from me,” Smith said. “I felt like my dreams were killed. I felt like all of the passions that I had were just destroyed by not just my upbringing, but just by the lack of my father.”
But Smith added that just like the verse says, Jesus gave him life. The Bible also told him why his life mattered and helped him believe that he could accomplish something with his life.
“Because God created you, and God values you, there is no set (limit) as to what you can do,” Smith said. “And it does not matter that you are in Cabrini-Green.”
Jackson Elliott is a Christian journalist trained at Northwestern University. He has worked at The Daily Signal, The Inlander, and The Christian Post, covering topics ranging from D.C. politics to prison ministry. His interests include the Bible, philosophy, theology, Russian literature, and Irish music.