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Clinical forensic psychology student Cassandra Simmons, M.A., helps youth in Chicago change their lives

Clinical Forensic Psychology doctoral student Cassandra Simmons didn’t know that she’d be leaving Ohio for Chicago after graduating from Georgetown College in the spring of 2012, and she certainly didn’t know that she’d find herself founding and running a mentoring program for girls between the ages of 12 and 17 on the city’s South Side.

“I didn’t even think I liked kids,” she says with a bright smile from across a table filled with the hallmarks of a busy woman:  iPad, iPhone, purse, book bag and lunch. Simmons has taken the interview during the only time she has available: between a trip to the emergency room for a pulled muscle and her afternoon classes. The smile is slightly puzzled as she talks, as if she can’t believe she’d ever had such a thought about kids.

Given that Simmons, a cheery 20-something that simply radiates confidence and good will, has spent a substantial amount of her time working with children since she arrived in Chicago, one can understand the puzzled smile. Her journey began almost three years ago when she received an email from The Chicago School on behalf of the Sue Duncan Children’s Center. The Center was looking for students interested in helping children. Simmons signed up, thinking it was a volunteer position to which she’d be devoting a few hours a week.

Once Simmons began at the Sue Duncan Center, one of Chicago’s premier agencies known for the work it does with children, she was so drawn to both the children and the Center itself that she found herself spending much more time there than the six hours a week the position called for. “At first I was going every day,” she comments almost sheepishly, though the smile is still bright. “It’s like family – the kids and the adults there are like my family.”

Committed to making a difference in the lives of children who are considered at-risk, Simmons served her first practicum at Cook County Juvenile Probation and Court Services, and clearly someone who won’t slow down, coordinated her practicum schedule with that of the Center, and traveled back and forth to Ohio to see her mom, who was sick at the time. “It was tough, but I didn’t know it was tough at the time. I just did it because it needed to be done.”

This can-do attitude shows itself frequently throughout the interview, and is likely what gives her the energy to not only work as a graduate assistant, but also volunteer once a week with TCSPP’s Save Our School Children (S.O.S.) program, a program developed by Dr. Michelle Hoy-Watkins, department chair of The Chicago School’s Forensic Psychology Program. The program is a school-based initiative designed to address the issue of violence among youth, using developmentally appropriate and culturally relevant interventions. Simmons works with middle school girls, helping them to develop life skills.

Her biggest project to date, however, has been with the 54-year old nonprofit Sue Duncan Center. The Center’s mission, according to program and development manager Caroline Aiken is “to transform the lives of children by nurturing their academic, athletic and artistic growth.”

In November 2014, Simmons began her mentorship program at the Center. Called Regina’s Jewels, the program is named for her mother, the woman who inspires Simmons the most. “I’ve had many women in my life who have been very good to me, but my mother has always been the one woman I can look up to. She works a very demanding job, but she always found time for me, and instilled in me lifelong values. I consider myself a jewel in her crown.”

Regina’s Jewels was born because Simmons realized that many of the girls were in need of the same kind of positive role model she has in her mother. Pairing each girl with a mentor that meets with her on a monthly basis, the program facilitates the development of the relationships between the girls and their mentors through cultural, academic and sports activities. Of the 15 mentors in the program, 11 are from Simmons’ Chicago School cohort, while others she met through networking. She chose the mentors herself. “I looked for stability, consistency and an open heart…these girls {the mentees} need people who will accept them for who they are.”

There are currently 16 jewels in the Regina’s Jewels Mentoring Program, with Simmons herself mentoring two of the girls. The program’s goals are varied and many, including giving the girls leadership skills, ensuring academic and job readiness, exposing them to a world outside their own and instilling in them the knowledge that they can be successful.

With the same passion that she’s evinced throughout the entire interview, Simmons says, “I want them to know that it doesn’t have to stop with me. I’m doing all these things, and they need to know that they can do the same things, or whatever they want to do. I want them to know that you can give back, even if you don’t have a lot.”

Caroline Aiken co-facilitates Regina’s Jewels with Simmons and says that she is very grateful for the work Simmons has done at the Center. “She brings with her a positive attitude and knowledge of working with underserved youth. Cassandra is a very smart, talented and poised woman.”

There are several things up next on the busy Miss Simmons’ agenda, including an interview for her next practicum, starting a Regina’s Jewels for fourth through sixth graders at the Sue Duncan Center’s second site, and taking talks to start the program in Ohio and Texas from the beginning stages to next steps. Her goal is to take the program nationwide.

“Regina’s Jewels will be much bigger once I finish school. My mom is supportive, and I know I can do it. All I have to do is call her and tell her I need something for my girls, and she’ll have a fundraiser at our church so I can get it. Owen Duncan and everyone else at the Center have been just as supportive.”

When asked how working at the Center has impacted her life, she says, “The kids and everyone there motivate me. I could be having the worst day, but when I get there and one of the little kids runs to give me a hug…” she trails off and the emotion that has always been there becomes more noticeable before she finishes, “…they need me, but I need them too.”

Simmons is in her first year of her Psy.D. Program, and when she finishes, hopes to get a job at Cook County Juvenile Probation and Court Services administering therapy. The Sue Duncan Children’s Center builds safe, supportive communities that strengthen families and motivate children to succeed. The Center has been a TCSPP community partner for almost seven years.