Travel is the tool that Crystal Dyer uses to organize her community.
The West Side travel agent founded Chicago Austin Youth Travel Adventures (CAYTA) in 2015 to take teens and young adults on excursions to museums and cultural centers across the city – and abroad.
“Many of the youth in my programs don’t leave their community very often. It’s something that seems kind of unbelievable but I understand it because growing up I only went to areas of town where I had relatives. We weren’t exploring the city,” Dyer said.
She has since taken hundreds of kids – ranging from ages 9 to 23 – on trips across the city and nearly 30 young people to Ghana.
Having grown up in the Ida B. Wells public housing development on the South Side, Dyer’s parents worked two jobs to provide for the family. Relying on relatives and neighbors to watch over the kids, Dyer said there was a certain synergy in the community back then to help each other.
She was reminded of that synergy when her grandson was killed in 2011 – the victim of being caught in the crossfire of an argument that escalated into gunfire at a birthday party. He was just shy of his 18th birthday.
“My mind was telling me I had to do something, and that’s when God gave me the message that it’d be through travel,” Dyer said.
She had already founded Gone Again Travel and Tours agency in the early 2000s, leaving her corporate job at AT&T after her travel side business took off.
Headquartered in the Austin neighborhood, Dyer said it became clear that she could use her travel agency to provide enriching experiences for Chicago youth.
“Traveling helps keep kids out of trouble. I kept my three sons active with travels and adventures in the city. It clicked to take my travel planning skills and my parenting mindset and apply it to the kids in my community,” Dyer said.
For parents like LaRhonda Tyler, whose daughter Osheanna participated in Dyer’s program in 2019, said that she’s thankful for “Miss Crystal” and other community members who dedicate time and resources to exposing youth to the world.
Tyler said that at first she was nervous of the thought of allowing her child to go so far from home without her, but that Dyer’s support and insight leading up to the Ghana trip put her at ease.
“It’s something I never got the opportunity to do growing up. But Miss Crystal put me at ease about letting my baby go – she helped me get everything Osheanna needed, like a passport.“
And she’s glad she let her baby go, as Osheanna said the trip helped her put a lot of her own life in perspective.
“At first I didn’t know anything about Africa or Ghana besides the stereotypes you see on social media and TV. But going made me see that some people may not have a lot, but they were the happiest and nicest people I’ve ever met,” Ocheanna said.
Osheanna, 15, said that during the trip she rarely used her phone except for pictures – that she was fully captured in the moment and experience. She noted that seeing animals like monkeys and goats wander freely outside of captivity, just as squirrels or birds do in America, opened her eyes to “whole other worlds” outside of Chicago.
“Here we have gangs and stuff but there, it didn’t seem like as much drama. They didn’t even know us but were happy to talk to us, and show us their country, and that’s so different to me,” Osheanna said.
Selected youth participants have the $6,000 cost of travel and stay sponsored by CAYTA. A few other eligibility requirements include logging volunteer hours, attendance in monthly field trips and the completion of an eight-week family ancestry course.
“Ghana is beautiful and amazing but I make it clear this isn’t a family vacation. It’s a participatory program,” said Dyer, who makes sure to include sites like the Ancestral River Park and Assin Manso Slave River Site.
They also visit the canopies of the tropical forests at the Kakum Canopy Walkway and the residence of the Monarch of the Ashanti Kingdom, Asantehene, at Manhyia Palace.
This summer’s trip boosts four students to embark to Ghana for two weeks.
Dyer said she hopes that fundraising efforts will allow them to sponsor two more participants this year “especially given what’s going on with the kids and these groups downtown, I want to be able to take larger groups on these trips.”
Gun violence and feeling unheard are some of the reasons Dyer said Chicago’s West Side youth don’t feel empowered to explore their city.
“These kids have PTSD just from living. They’re living in times where they don’t know if they are going to get shot just standing at a bus stop,” Dyer said.
Anthony Young, now 26, who was one of the first participants in the annual trips to Ghana starting in 2017, said the experience was nothing short of life-changing.
While it wasn’t his first time abroad, Young said this was the first time he was able to go somewhere and be able to draw clear parallels between his life on the West Side and what life is like for Black people globally.
“What struck me was how their communities had churches everywhere, too. But what caught my attention was how much they love themselves and their Blackness and culture,” Young said.
He said the experience opened his eyes to the possibilities in Chicago, and changed how he saw his life trajectory.
“If they can come together as a village, so can we. It inspired me to be proud of being Black and it gave me faith that even without a lot we can come together and build our communities.”
Samantha Callender is a digital reporting fellow for WBEZ. Follow her across socials @OnYourCallender.