After a drop in drip coffees ordered at Rogers Park’s Helix Cafe, the store’s owners — non-profit founders and Loyola alumni Sean Connolly and Caitlin Botsios — closed the shop Feb. 27 to refurbish the space into a “community center” for local high school students.
The former cafe (6237 N. Clark St.) — which still holds remnants of its past life with student art on the walls, a sign proclaiming the Wi-Fi password and laminated QR codes for the drink and food menu — will hold four to five community events a week starting in April, according to Connolly, the executive director of education.
For the non-profit’s renovation, Helix Education’s 13 high school interns will brainstorm, canvas Rogers Park neighbors on what the former cafe’s space should be used for and implement a social events calendar this spring.
The non-profit trains students for life after school through job placements and community work, according to its website. While Botsios and Connolly may produce the show, it’s the high school interns who run it.
“I would totally recommend the program, even for people who aren’t looking to go into business,” Victoire Molomangai, a 16-year-old junior at Roscoe Village’s Lane Tech College Prep High School and third-time Helix intern, said. “Everyone can use business in their everyday life, whether it be budgeting, taxes, just managing life or their financials, this program would be great.”
Last summer, Molomangai made newsletters for Helix, a job that bled into her fall project, a “by students, for students” guide for after-school programs.
“A lot of other work is done by adults, so it’s not easy for younger people to understand or even be interested in it,” Molomangia said. “[As] a student, I know a method of writing to make sure I can grab the audience’s attention, which is basically myself.”
The building, nestled next to Heirloom Books, is awaiting the student’s input and ideas as they develop “21st-century skills,” according to the cofounders.
Connolly and Botsios were roommates during their college years, but it wasn’t until six years after they walked out of Cudahy Library’s green doors and graduated in 2012 that Helix Education was born.
“This city, for us, was everything,” Connolly, an adjunct professor at Loyola’s Quinlan School of Business, said. “It was where we met, it was our home base, I came out of the closet here. This city gave us everything. We wanted to figure out a way that’s like, ‘How do we help the city as a whole?’”
To support Chicagoans, Botsios and Connolly are helping Rogers Park’s Sullivan students open a small business on the high school’s campus, developing a partnership with the Chicago Housing Authority, planning a Clark Street block party and developing a new, nine-month internship program. They also design and sell lesson plans to schools in Chicago and central Washington state that focus on project-based learning.
“Neither of us really half-ass anything,” Botsios said. “We whole ass all things.”
Part of the inspiration sprung from a 2018 Gallup poll, which found 3% of adults thought high schoolers are ready for college and 5% think they’re ready for the workforce. Botsios wants to change that by teaching students life and career skills.
Each project the non-profit starts is designed to help students learn real-world skills, such as time management and emotional regulation skills instead of “rote memorization,” which Botsios said she saw too much of as a middle school teacher.
“There wasn’t necessarily a class for but it supposedly was being built throughout [school],” the executive director of business operations said. “There’s also these skill gaps in, ‘Can you exist as a human? Do you know how to talk with someone else? Do you know how to settle a conflict or disagreement? Or do you know how to work with someone you don’t like?’ Those types of things are what we’re doing a lot of building on.”
Helix’s student-designed logo, a blue and white geometric “H,” represents the bridge created between students’ unmet needs and a community’s solutions, Connolly said.
Although the rules are changing, the game’s still the same for Connolly: “You can change the world by organizing your neighborhood.”