When Joel Taboada returned home to Chicago, Illinois after 12 years and four tours in the military, he found the youth of his hometown steeped in the same violence he had just escaped.
“Being a veteran I’m a pretty mission focused person,” the 29-year-old father of three tells PEOPLE.
So, when a friend told Taboada about the Urban Warriors – a program of the city’s YMCA that pairs combat veterans with youth who have been exposed to violence – he knew he wanted to get involved.
“Urban warriors pairs at-risk youth with post 9/11 veteran mentors whether it’s learning coping skills or just giving them a bigger vision of what the neighborhood can be or what they can do for themselves,” he explains. “The goal is to reduce the cycle of violence and hopefully one day in the future they’re going to be able to use that to help another child.”
The pairs meet weekly for 16 weeks and work together through a curriculum that focuses on belonging, positive identity development, cognitive restructuring, coping and community engagement.
“These young people have experienced violence every day,” Taboada says. “We help them focus on channeling that into becoming part of the solution and learning that their experiences don’t define them. What defines them is what they do with those experiences”
While some participants are skeptical at first, Taboada has watched the young people in the program change for the better. Even after the program has ended, he continues to support his mentees in whatever way he can. “Sometimes they just need an adult to talk to,” he says.
Many former mentees have already reached out to Taboada about how they can pay what he has given them forward.
“We think this is going to have a big impact on violence in the city of Chicago,” says program graduate Steven Lopez. “If I can help a young person have a better future then that’s what I’m going to do.”