Following his friend’s death, a Chicago native went on a mission to make a difference in his city

On April 12, 2013, Darius Ballinger found himself nervously staring at a possible sentence of up to five years for prior convictions. The Chicago native had been arrested twice: once for possessing cannabis and another time for forging prescriptions.

“I was at a fork in the road in my life, I’m not going to lie,” he told In The Know. “I was 22 years old, and the idea of serving three to five years in prison was significant. I wasn’t naive. I was definitely like, ‘Oh, wow, I’m going to sit in prison for five years. I could have went and gone to law school.'”

When the judge instead gave him two years of probation and 90 days of jail, a relieved Ballinger contacted his friend and mentor Wayne Drummer, whom he had met just over a year before through mutual friends and who had supported him throughout his legal battle.

“We were really close, close, close friends for about 12, 16 months,” Ballinger recalled. “Specifically, we got really close as I was going through my second court case and had a very pessimistic view about the whole thing.”

While the two of them talked briefly, Drummer told Ballinger, a creative and entrepreneur, to focus on his family and to continue to focus on his career ambitions. Sadly, it would be the last conversation they would have.

The next day, Ballinger learned through social media that Drummer had died in what police reported as a domestic violence incident. Incredulous at first, Ballinger searched online, only to come across a story that confirmed the tragic news: his friend had been allegedly stabbed in a dispute with his girlfriend.

“It f***ed me up,” Ballinger said. “It rocked my world.”

Finding hope through grief

Determined to follow through with his promise that he had made to Drummer, Ballinger launched Chasing23 —  a nonprofit organization that empowers youth in Chicago by teaching them life skills — in 2016, after completing his probation and receiving his bachelor’s degree. The organization’s name was inspired by Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan, who wore the number 23 for most of his career.

For Ballinger, who had spent most of his formative years on the South Side of Chicago, it was important to teach life skills to those, who like him, had little exposure to cultures outside of the area. To do that, he recruited a cohort of people to serve approximately 20 students outside of school.

“Historically, the city has been segregated,” he said. “There [are] three sides: the white side, the Black side and then the Hispanic side. That was the experience, growing up in a predominately African American community … A lot of my experiences as an adolescent [were] deeply rooted in community, deeply rooted in neighborhood, deeply rooted in … my tribe and my peers and my friends.”

Unlike some groups that serve at-risk youth, Chasing23 prefers offering services ad hoc as opposed to focusing solely on basic needs. The organization assesses each young adult’s personal goals and takes steps to introduce them to opportunities that help foster their skills. Though its programming was initially school-based, Chasing23 has since shifted to a for-profit, community-oriented model.

“While you kind of bring folks in, you want them to buy into something that’s bigger than them,” Ballinger said, discussing the organization’s approach.

Over the years, Chasing23 has also hosted basketball tournaments, scholarship banquets, video game competitions and fundraisers — all with the purpose of uplifting young adults who may have otherwise turned to drugs and violence. It has additionally served as an incubator for those who, like Ballinger, want to start their own brands.

The organization’s work has since caught the attention of several notable names. In 2017, President Barack Obama featured Ballinger — who also serves on the advisory boards of the Obama Foundation and the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center — on his Instagram page. Two years later, Forbes highlighted the 29-year-old on its 30 under 30 Social Entrepreneurs list. If anything, the recognition has validated Ballinger’s purpose and mission, he said.

“Normally, it isn’t easy as it is, as easy as it’s [hyped] up to be, but it’s definitely a calling,” Ballinger said. “It’s something that I take wholeheartedly.”

But accolades aside, the Chicago resident has much bigger plans in store, especially in 2021. He said he hopes to grow Chasing23 while building on his own fashion line.

“[I’m] just figuring out how to leverage different tools to shape the culture in the end [and] really make an impact,” he said.

If you found this story insightful, read about this college student who set out to foster safer interactions with the police.

More from In The Know:

Sober Black Girls Club aims to tackle alcohol use disorder among Black and brown women

This warm and cozy teddy coat is affordable enough to buy in multiple colors

These top-rated earbuds live up to the hype

These $10 sheet masks are like an at-home facial for your skin

Listen to the latest episode of our pop culture podcast, We Should Talk: