He had a vision for life. It was all pasted up on his “vision board” – words like family, opportunities, genius, world’s greatest, climbing the corporate ladder, starts with a single step.
He had visited Chicago’s Kenwood Academy, and was blown away by the band, the poetry, the promise of a future. You hear about kids with smiles that can “light up a room” all the time, but Ryan Banks’ smile was different. It had life behind it. It had kindness. It had hope. Now that smile, and Ryan Banks, are gone.
On Saturday, May 19, 2012, Ryan Banks was running home from a neighbor’s house on Chicago’s South Side, when he was gunned down.
“That child never walked anywhere!” said his aunt, Bridgette Banks. “Always running.”
Listening to his aunt speak at a recent fundraiser for the Ryan Banks Academy, I got the impression he wasn’t running away from the bad in the world; he was running toward the good. As fast as his skinny legs could carry him.
Ryan’s story, and his death, touched his entire school. His classmates at Sullivan Elementary School created a giant banner reading, “We miss you Ryan.” But perhaps no one at Ryan’s school was more touched most by his positive outlook on life and that infectious smile than Valerie Groth, his school’s social worker.
“He was full of potential,” Groth said. “Optimistic. Now, we want to bring that optimism to create a better future for Chicago.”
How can children escape the possible dysfunction of their home life while focusing on the future in their educational life?
Looking more like a fashion model than a gritty Chicago social worker, Groth shared her plan to create an academy in Ryan’s name. Packed in a shoulder-to-shoulder fundraiser at the glamorous Kendra Scott Jewelry Store on Michigan Avenue, the concept of creating a boarding school seemed a touch removed amid all the glitter and glamour.
Champagne was poured, tiny cupcakes were laid out, and little necklaces were displayed. Teal gems. Teal was Ryan’s favorite color. Designed to lay close to your heart, the Ryan Banks necklace was a sparkling reminder of the child’s optimism. The necklace was for sale – a fundraiser for the future school.
But how does a small group of people create the first 100-percent-free boarding school in Chicago? By starting small.
“Twenty students,” board member Ryan Lazarus explained to me. “The long-term goal is 250, but we want to start with a pilot program. We want to focus on corporate work-in groups. We want kids to learn empathy. Not memorization.”
And that’s how a ball like this gets rolling. The plan is to open the Ryan Banks Academy in August 2017.
“We just completed the curriculum!” Groth announced to the throng of donors inside the jewelry store.
Where this school will be located is still up in the air, but the team behind the project is beyond confident.
“We need to find a building, possibly working with the University of Chicago – at least for the pilot program,” Lazarus said.
Before Ryan was killed, his aunt Bridgette Banks remembers, Ryan reached into his pocket and gave his older brother some change he had after going to the store.
Banks said she hugged Ryan, told him she loved him and that she was proud.
Now, Groth and her team – also fond and proud of Ryan – are trying to offer change for children in Chicago by providing them a safe learning environment.
David Parrish is executive producer at CBS in Chicago. He’s a graduate of Central Michigan and a guest lecturer at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.