Oak Park ‘Hidden Gem’ Helps Kids Discover Their Passion

OAK PARK, Ill. (CBS) – An Oak Park man is making it his life’s work to improve the lives of children and teens. He does this by providing them with a safe space to listen, learn, and discover their passions.

CBS 2 host 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 apprentices. “What you have 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’re also here for the pizza, but it doesn’t take them long to tell you that that’s not all.

“At first I was just here for the food, but I started coming more and learning what it was all about,” Kaleb said.

What it is about is teaching these young people to ask 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.

“Not only will they get a job, but they will connect with people in their community,” Thomas said.

“When you’re trying to do what you’re passionate about, you don’t see it as work,” she told the children. “You see it as ‘that’s my life’.”

Thomas said with his apprentices: “First we look at how they’re doing in life. Are they happy? Is that transferable to a skill? And nine times out of 10, it is.”

Thomas: “If there is something you want and someone sees you say ‘I want more knowledge’, what do you think will happen?”

Child: “They will start to believe in you and will try harder to make sure you get it.”

Thomas wants to be a mentor because he was a mentor.

“I had a great education, a great mother, a great father, but I still found myself in trouble because I didn’t have a vision,” Thomas said. “I had mentors who said that you have special talents. What can you do with that?”

His resume includes stints in the Marine Corps and the corporate world, plus a bachelor’s degree in adolescent psychology. She brings it all together to help students get a job and prepare for life.

“He offered to help me get internships,” Kaleb said of Thomas. “He showed me how to do interviews, how to be successful at a young age.”

Thomas added: “It’s not to say, ‘Here I have work.’ It’s giving them the opportunity to understand what motivates them.”

So Thomas talks a lot, but more importantly, he listens a lot.

“They want to talk about being better in life,” he said. “It’s a thing I see.”

Students also talk about the little things.

“It’s a space where people can come, they can talk about how their day was, where to get things, without doing it in a bad way,” said Chris Heard, a high school student.

Thomas added: “It’s like, what do you want to do and how can I help you get there? Every chance we get to get them closer to that, it’s a blessing.

Every time Thomas hears “thank you” from one of the kids, it means the world and shows he’s doing something right. He is planning more tutoring programs over the summer.

To learn more 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 us at [email protected].