OAK PARK, Illinois (CBS) – An Oak Park man makes it his life’s work to improve the lives of children and teens. He does this by giving them a safe space to listen, learn and discover their passions.
CBS 2 Anchor Joe Donlon introduced us to Chris Thomas, one of Chicago’s ‘Hidden Gems’.
It was a typical Wednesday afternoon on the second floor of the Oak Park Library.
“People will always try to tell you what to do,” Thomas told his mentees. “What you need to do is figure out what you want to do? What do you want to do that will make you happy in life and build around that.”
The students were there for their weekly session with their mentor, Thomas. Of course they are also there for the pizza, but that’s not all.
“I was only here for the food at first, but I started coming here more and learning what it was about,” said Kaleb.
It’s about teaching these young men to ask themselves important questions about themselves.
Thomas founded the non-profit organization “Your Passion First” in 2019. His goal is to prepare young people for jobs that can improve their lives and keep them true to their dreams.
“They don’t just get a job, they start connecting with people in their community,” Thomas said.
“When you’re trying to do what you’re passionate about, you don’t think of it as a job,” he told the kids. “You look at it like ‘that’s my life’.”
Thomas told his mentees, “We first look at how you’re doing in life? Are you happy? Is that transferable to a skill? And nine times out of ten it is.”
Thomas: “If there’s something you want and someone sees you say, ‘I want more knowledge,’ what do you think is going to happen?”
Child: “They will start to believe in you and put more effort into making sure you get it.”
Thomas wants to be a mentor because he was a mentor.
“I had a great upbringing, great mother, great father, but I was still in trouble because I had no vision,” said Thomas. “I had mentors say you have special talents. What can you do with them?”
His resume includes positions in the Marine Corps and business, plus a degree in adolescent psychology. He combines it all to help students find jobs and prepare them for life.
“He offered to help me find internships,” Kaleb said of Thomas. “He showed me how to do interviews, how to be successful as a young man.”
Thomas added: “It’s not saying, ‘I’ve got a job here.’ It gives them the chance to understand what motivates them.”
So Thomas talks a lot, but more importantly, he listens.
“They want to talk about being better in life,” he said. “Is one thing I see.”
The students also talk about the little things.
“It’s a space where people can come, they can talk about how their day went, where they can get things done, without doing it in a bad way,” says Chris Heard, a high school senior.
Thomas added: “It’s like what you want to do and how can I help you achieve that? Any chance we can get them closer to that, that’s a blessing.
Every time Thomas hears “thank you” from one of the kids, he means the world and shows that he’s doing something right. He plans more mentoring programs in the summer.
For more information about Thomas’ organization, visit yourpassion1st.com.
If you have a Hidden Gem you’d like us to meet, we’d love to hear from you. Send us your ideas by emailing [email protected].