‘Changing Youth’ one cent at a time

Monica Westlake
The coins collected in the meters will go towards the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.

By Kendrah Villiesse

While on vacation in Florida three years ago, 10-year-old Ava Santos-Volpe stumbled upon a yellow parking meter that was dedicated to provide help to the homeless.

After Tracy Baim, Windy City Times publisher and executive director and LGBTQ advocate, visited her fifth grade class to discuss her work with youth homelessness, the discussion inspired Santos-Volpe to create her own art project to make a difference. 

As the daughter of two women, Santos-Volpe founded Ava’s Change4Youth program seven months later—a part of Pride Action Tank, a program that is part of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago—which decorates city-abandoned parking meters to raise awareness of youth homelessness and the LGBTQ community by re-purposing the meters to hold donations. The money raised will go to the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, according to Santos-Volpe. 

“Forty percent of homeless youths identify as [LGBTQ], and that was something that was really important to me,” Santos-Volpe, now 13, said. 

The first decorated meter was installed Oct. 11, at Women & Children First Bookstore, 5233 N. Clark St., during Andersonville Arts Week. The installation is movable to comply with city permits. 

David Oakes, who is on Andersonville’s Chamber of Commerce for business services, helped arrange the project’s display during Arts Week. He said homeless shelters house a large number of children, many of whom identify as LGBTQ. 

“There’s a lot of homelessness [within the LGBTQ community] because some come from homes that do not wish to have an LGBTQ child within the household, or [LGBTQ youth] feel like they’re misunderstood or need to get out of a really bad situation,” Oakes said. 

 Lynn Mooney, co-owner of Women & Children First Bookstore, said she wanted to help when she learned about Ava’s Change4Youth project at the Chicago Equality Rally over the summer, so she offered to have the first meter at her feminist business during Arts Week. 

“We worry that some other fundamental problems in our society are just not getting attention right now,” Mooney said, noting her store is committed to local activism. “People think, ‘Oh, we’ve got gay marriage now; there has been so much progress. We don’t need to focus our attention on these communities anymore.’ The reality couldn’t be further from the truth.”

 The program also is launching a project for homelessness that creates small, house-shaped donation boxes decorated by young mothers and youth living in shelters. The boxes will be displayed in various businesses throughout the Chicago area, according to Theresa Volpe, one of Santos-Volpe’s mothers. 

 Volpe recalled when one of the young mothers at the shelters wanted to paint a night sky, train tracks leading into a room with a bed to represent her time as homeless and riding the train with her baby in the middle of the night with nowhere to go. Thanks to the shelter, the young mother and her child now have a place to call home. 

“We saw how this little activity helped her have this outlet and explain what this journey is like,” Volpe said. “A lot of them felt empowered to be working on a piece of art, so they could share their story.” 

Although there are similar donation methods nationwide, Ava’s Change4Youth is unique because it involves teens experiencing unstable housing situations and homelessness through the program and various donation projects, Volpe said.

 Santos-Volpe said she had observed activism and social justice issues throughout her life. One example she recalled was her moms being a part of the marriage equality case in Illinois, so she felt like she needed to do the project because it was important to not only her but also to her family. 

 “I really hope it not only helps the youth, but also raises awareness,” Santos-Volpe said, “so that not only is it changing their lives, but it’s also changing other people’s, and it’s making them more aware and more obligated to help.”