Chicago CRED grads celebrate high school diplomas and look to future careers

Dimaris Smith can’t even count the number of Chicago-area high schools he’s been kicked out of. He bounced around schools until he landed in a juvenile detention center, and then, prison.

He tries, ticking off schools on his fingers. He eventually gives up trying to pin down a number. Smith is fresh from walking across a red carpet in front of a cheering crowd waving orange pompoms and an emcee who demands he strike a pose.

Wednesday was cause for celebration for Smith, who, at age 27, received his GED after joining Chicago CRED. He had to redo the entirety of his high school education and finished in two years.

The anti-violence organization was created in 2016 by former U.S. Secretary of Education and CEO of Chicago Public Schools Arne Duncan.

This year’s ceremony outside the South Shore Cultural Center saw 58 young men and women receive diplomas after previously dropping out of high school. The organization takes those recovering from involvements in gun violence and gives them stipends, job and soft skills training, in addition to trauma therapy.

According to a report from Northwestern, CRED cuts down members’ probability of being shot or arrested by almost 60%. Prior to joining CRED, researchers estimate that members would be 25 times more likely than the average Chicago resident to be shot.

Michael Chester, senior outreach member of CRED, said he goes into the “roughest” neighborhoods to recruit young people for the program.

“I find the guys that are perpetuating the violence and let them know a little about me,” Chester said. “I was in a penitentiary, I made mistakes in my life, but I’ve corrected that now. I try to show them they don’t have to go to jail to be a man.”

In between hula-hooping and singing and dancing, graduates and their families pull up in cars, walk across a red carpet and pose with loved ones on stage after being handed their diploma.

“These are guys who missed their high school graduation,” CRED spokesperson Peter Cunningham said. “They’ve been through a lot of hard times, and now they’re having their moment. They get to feel that excitement and be recognized for having accomplished something.”

Tyrone Phelps, 30, said he was on the streets before finding CRED.


Staff congratulate Tyrone Phelps during Chicago CRED’s graduation ceremony outside the South Shore Cultural Center in the South Shore neighborhood.

Phelps, an Englewood resident, was kicked out of high school and never went back.

He had one year left of school and finished within six months in the CRED program.

“I never thought I’d get my GED until I got in this program,” he said.

Now, he’s headed to get his truck driving license after making connections through CRED, which helps match graduates with jobs, trade schools and companies.

Smith is using his training in CRED to go to trade school for HVAC.

“CRED let me know it’s never too late to start,” Smith said. “You can make it happen regardless of whatever the circumstances are.”

“We want to show them that not only did you achieve this big opportunity and monumental opportunity, but there’s more ahead to celebrate,” LaQuay Boone, senior manager of employment services at CRED, said. “We start to help pull those things out and show them, “you’re worthy, you’re valid, and this is only one of the many things that you will go on to accomplish.”

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