When native Chicagoan Crystal Dyer found out her grandson Devin had been shot and killed at a party just before his 18th birthday, she was devastated. “It happened in 2011, right here in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood,” remembers Dyer.
“I had been working in metro Atlanta for AT&T, and I knew I needed to move back to Chicago, which I did in 2013,” she adds. “But there was always a nagging feeling that I needed to do something to help stop youth violence in our community.”
Though she was born and raised on the city’s South Side in areas like Bronzeville, Englewood and Roseland, Dyer decided to get a home on the West Side in the Austin neighborhood where her grandson was killed. By then, she had retired from making all of the travel arrangements for the executives and technicians at AT&T and was running her travel agency, Gone Again Travel & Tours, from her home.
“And I kept asking God to show me what to do for the youth, and He gave me the message to travel,” shares Dyer. “He reminded me of what I did for my son Christopher when he was in his terrible teens and wanted to be like the boys on the corner. I got him out of the city and took him to New York and put him in the presence of men who looked like him who told their stories on how they prospered and excelled,” Dyer explains. “And that changed my son’s life.”
Traveling Beyond the Neighborhood
Dyer took some free courses with nonprofit organizations, and they suggested she start her own organization. “I established Chicago Austin Youth Travel Adventures (CAYTA) in 2015 and then rented space from a friend to open the storefront for my travel agency in 2016,” says Dyer.
“It’s the only Black-owned brick-and-mortar travel agency in Chicago,” she boasts. And it’s where she hosts her CAYTA programs. “The main mission for CAYTA is violence prevention. And we do that through local cultural immersions, careers in tourism, and our yearly birthright journey to Ghana, West Africa.”
Dyer started bringing kids, ages 14 to 23, in for a summer school program where she would take them on excursions to local cultural centers and introduce them to careers and occupations that they don’t learn about in school. “I feel if I can show the kids alternatives, then they’ll make better life decisions,” Dyer adds.
The bus excursions also included stopping at a restaurant so the kids could learn about different cuisines. “I took them to the Chinese American Museum and found out most of them had never eaten Chinese food,” notes Dyer.
“And in some cases, some of the kids had never even been downtown. A young man who was almost 18 years old told me he had never seen the Chicago River. And some of the kids had never even been to the South Side,” Dyer laments. “But why would they?” she continues. “For many of their parents, going all the way to the South Side to the Dusable Museum or to the Chicago Children’s Museum would be like going out of the country.”
Growing up, Dyer herself didn’t travel much, but she did go to Indiana Dunes, the Field Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry. “And believe it or not, we would travel to a cemetery in the neighborhood to study gravestones, the different types of granite and things like that,” adds Dyer. “So at Oak Woods Cemetery, there were gravesites for Civil War veterans and things like that and it really interested me in archeology and studying my past history.”
That’s why it was important for Dyer, who didn’t take her first trip out of the state until she was 27, to expose her youth to international travel to West Africa. “I want them to learn their ancestry and how powerful they really are,” states Dyer.
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And through a partnership with Ancestry.com, students are provided with kits to find out where their ancestors are from before they travel to Africa. Dyer found that her ancestry started in Nigeria. To take the trip, students also have to write an essay on why they want to go and what it will mean to them. “And of course, I plan our international student trips through my travel agency,” says Dyer. “And the money that’s used for the kids is all raised from donations, not state or federal grants.”
Ghana and the African Diaspora
The Ghana trip starts in Accra at the W. E. B. Debois home and gravesite, then to Tomasi for an African Naming Ceremony, and to the Cape Coast to the Slave River and The Last Bath, where African captives were taken to wash before they were taken to the slave dungeons to be shipped and sold.
“When we get to that point in the trip, we meet with a psychologist who is from Chicago, but has a home in Ghana,” explains Dyer. “And she’ll do a ceremony with the students for them to unlock their feelings from that experience.” She adds,
“I had one student who had a meltdown when it was time for us to leave Ghana. She sat on the ground and cried because she wanted to stay longer and experience more. But I told her she can come back as a CAYTA mentor when she becomes a high school senior.” Dyer plans to go back to Ghana this July. Each time, she hopes to have ten students paid for by donations. Currently, she has four and will do a 30-day fundraising campaign to add more.
The Chicago native wants to take students to Paris in 2024 for Black history tours, as well as to Belize, Kenya, South Africa and a cruise to The Bahamas, where they’ll visit the Pompeii Museum of Slavery and Emancipation.
“So this is the year that CAYTA is going to build up our itineraries because I really want us to travel internationally three times a year,” Dyer says with hope. “And we’re starting a genealogy component with BUILD where we’ll get the entire community of Austin involved,” exclaims Dyer.
“In fact, I’ve started a genealogy workshop at the 15th District Police Station every Thursday. They’re a partner with their Chicago Westside Sports organization, where they sponsor all of the equipment and uniforms for any kid to join a soccer, baseball, basketball, or football team, and their parents don’t have to pay any money. And it teaches them teamwork.”
She adds, “Choose Chicago is also a partner and gave me computers for the kids. So there is a whole community that is invested in these youth.” Dyer also teaches youth and adults to become step-on guides for trolley tours she started in 2021. “And once they finish the course, they’re certified and can be listed with the Obama Foundation as community tour guides,” boasts Dyer.
Blooming Where They’re Planted
There are lots of success stories to prove that CAYTA is changing lives. “I’ve had a participant say to me, ‘Ms. Crystal, everybody in my family was selling drugs and I was headed that way. But you showed me I didn’t have to be like them.’ And he ended up getting his commercial driver’s license and a job with the Chicago Transit Authority. And he wants to start his own trucking company,” says Dyer with pride.
She adds, “There’s also a young lady who is the oldest of six kids. Her momma had her when she was 14. Now, she has a college degree and is a [flight attendant] for American Airlines. And one of my other young men graduated from college and is working in prisons now. He used to live under a bridge with his momma.”
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Many of the graduates come back and volunteer to inspire the new kids in the program. Dyer says she loves seeing her CAYTA kids blossom. “When they learn their history, they learn that they are the strongest of the strong. And travel gives them a bigger vision of their capacity in this world.”
For more information on the Chicago Austin Youth Travel Adventures, visit the website, Facebook and Instagram pages. And to book your own Black heritage travel experiences, visit the Gone Again Travel & Tours website.
Finally, check out this YouTube link to see a video about Chicago Austin Youth Travel Adventure’s 2022 trip to Ghana.