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Oak Park 'Hidden Gem' helps kids discover their passion

Oak Park 'Hidden Gem' helps kids discover their passion
Oak Park 'Hidden Gem' helps kids discover their passion 03:17

OAK PARK, Ill. (CBS) – An Oak Park man is making it his life's work to make the lives of kids and teens better. He does it 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 are always going to try and tell you what to do," Thomas told his mentees. "What you have to do is figure out is what do you want to do? What do you want to do that is gonna 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 they're quick to tell you that's not all.

"I was just here for the food at first, but I started coming here more and learning what it was about," said Kaleb.

What it's about is teaching these young men to ask themselves important questions about themselves.

Thomas founded the nonprofit "Your Passion First" in 2019. His goal is to prepare young people for jobs that can make their lives better and keep them true to their dreams.

"They're not going to just get a job, but they're going to connect with people in their community," Thomas said.

"When you're trying to do what you're passionate about, you don't look at it as a job," he told the kids. "You look at it as 'that's my life.'"

Thomas said with his mentees, "We first look at how are you doing with life? Are you happy? Is that transferable to a skill? And nine times out of 10, it is."

Thomas: "If there is something that you want and someone sees you say 'I want more knowledge,' what do you think is gonna happen?"

Kid: "They are going to start to believe in you and put more effort into making sure you get it."

Thomas wants to mentor because he was mentored.

"I had a great upbringing, great mom, great dad, but I still found myself in trouble, because I didn't have a vision," Thomas said. "I had mentors who said you do have special talents. What can you do with those?"

His resume includes stints in the Marine Corps and the corporate world, plus a degree in adolescent psychology. He combines it all to help students get a job and get ready for life.

"He offered to help me get 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, 'Here I have a job.' It's giving them a chance to understand what motivates them."

So Thomas does a lot of talking, but more importantly, a lot of listening.

"They want to talk about being better at life," he said. "Is one thing I see."

The students also talk about the small stuff.

"It's a space people can come, they can talk about how their day went, where get stuff out, 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 toward that? Every chance we can get them closer to that, that's a blessing.

Anytime Thomas hears "thank you" from one of the kids, it means the world and it shows he's doing something right. He's planning more mentoring programs over the summer.

To learn more about Thomas' organization, visit

If you have a Hidden Gem whom you want us to meet, we'd love to hear from you. Send us your ideas by emailing us at

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