By Anna Alejo

(CBS4) – An East Denver nonprofit seeks to build tenacity, compassion and critical thinking skills in young people — all using the game of chess.

Make a Chess Move (MACM) was founded by Phillip Douglas, who lost a mentee to gun violence back in 2012. Douglas believes chess is relevant to the struggles young people face in life — and in East Denver, they can face monumental challenges.

“Chess plays a role, in my opinion in everything in life,” Youth Facilitator Aaron Smith said.

“What we do is use the skillset of chess to overall teach life,” said his colleague Mark Johnathan Hill II.

Through programming in and out of school, Douglas and his youth facilitators create a stable presence for teens and young adults maneuvering life’s stresses and pressures.

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“Often a lot of people in our community are used to beating people with physical attributes, such as if they’re faster, stronger, if they can jump higher — but it’s a different feeling than beating somebody with your mind, just outthinking them and outsmarting them,” Hill said.

Antonio Herrera leads the Make a Compassion Move curriculum, an extension of the MACM curriculum focused on youth who’ve been suspended or expelled from school, offering them a safe place and better alternatives to the streets.

“Once I was terrorizing my community, now I’m blessing my community. So, I do feel good. Especially because I’ve got kids looking up to me,” he said.

MACM builds a sense of belonging and draws out the talents of its members by helping them find their passions.

“Just giving them the idea of ok this is what I can do in life. This is what I can have control of rather than having someone else say this is what you should do,” Smith said.

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Participants are paid to attend, and learn how to facilitate, set goals and plan community events.

“Whenever I’m playing chess or teaching it’s like I’m in a whole different world and the only thing my mind is set on is that chess board which ultimately allows me to live my life like I’m living in a chess board. So yeah, I’m dealing with certain things but I’m learning how to control myself, how to still take advantage of certain opportunities I’m given while also allowing me to help my community,” Hill said.

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Make a Chess Move plans to serve 650 youth in 2022. 75% of participants report an increased ability to cope with life’s daily stresses.

CBS News Colorado is partnering with MTV on “Mental Health is Health” seeking to improve mental health in our community by normalizing conversation about mental health, sharing resources, and highlighting groups taking action to help others thrive.

Anna Alejo