Last week I read the following quote, a Kenyan proverb, on the wall of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Treat the Earth well. It was not given to you by your parents. It was loaned to you by your children
People often think of the environment when they think of the Earth. I think of its people. More importantly, I think of children. What's my role as a social entrepreneur in the nonprofit youth development field? What am I really passing on to our youth to make them successful?
Outside of my own mentoring program, I mentor a few kids informally in both Los Angeles and New York. A few weeks ago, I spent time with one mentee, Robert (name changed), a 17-year-old boy in Los Angeles. Within minutes he told me that his sister, his legal guardian, had kicked him out (again) because of conflicts with her new boyfriend. He'd been bouncing between friends' houses in gang-ridden East L.A. and as a result of this instability "temporarily" dropped out of high school. Los Angeles has one of the highest high school drop out rates and homeless teen populations in the country. I'm staring a living statistic right in the face.
Robert had a gash on his face -- a result of getting jumped by a local gang while on his way to school. When he gets to school, he's hungry and tired because he hasn't eaten or slept well, leaving him unfocused and disruptive in class. Teachers and other students easily anger him and he has no stable place or adult guidance to complete homework assignments. Robert's one advocate is an overworked guidance counselor who has a case load of 500 students -- a stroke of good luck considering his last school had one counselor for over 5,000 students. Lastly, he has no career or basic life skills needed to get a part-time job. He's been passed over by fast food chains after failing basic skills tests. Robert told me he doesn't see the point in going to school. This (legal) immigrant who used to dream of college life at Harvard or USC basically gave up because of the constant obstacles in his way.
Why did I tell this story? Robert was once a promising kid at another after-school program near downtown Los Angeles. He had the favor of the staff, access to quality educational and recreational activities, and positive role models for support. However, Robert's life challenges continued to increase, and this program could not accommodate his needs. With constant behavioral problems and after failed internal efforts to work through his issues, they kicked him out. With only enough resources to serve kids who are either self-motivated or who have greater parent support, they weren't able to serve Robert or refer him to other resources or community organizations who could help him.
I was dumbfounded, because I've known this kid for years. Robert is exceedingly charming, polite when alone, and has drive and ambition. What he lacks is consistency in things that many of us take for granted -- parental figures, positive role models, a safe place to do his homework, a warm bed, three meals a day. I'm not blaming this after-school program nor his school for Robert's situation. Instead, as a community leader I'm asking myself, how could have Robert's situation changed?
What if kids like Robert were plugged into a community of adults to teach him the life skills needed to succeed? Basic skills such as prioritizing, project completion, keeping appointments, public speaking, and goal setting are some of the things at-risk youth need to elevate out of their situation. Life skills transformed into career skills are the backbone of success.
It all boils down to this: your city, state, and country are your community. The school, supermarket, kid riding his skateboard, girl standing at the bus stop, street you park on, or the train station you wait at are also your community. A good community-based organization that addresses these needs, and a mentoring program with stable adult mentors can help out kids like Robert.
As a youth advocate, nonprofit leader and mentor, here are my resolutions for "at-risk" youth:
1) We won't just help the easy children. We know you want and deserve just as much as they do, but don't know how to ask.
2) We won't give up on you. Because we know life is tough and remember what it's like to be your age, we will be there through the good times and bad. We have your back 100%.
3) We care about your future. We're not just here for one day. This isn't a soup kitchen. We're here until you achieve your goals and for as long as you want us there. Your future is our future.
This video clip is from our recent Stoked Awards in New York City. The young man speaking is Erick from Los Angeles. His background is similar to Robert's, and is an example of the community taking care of its children.
January is National Mentoring Month. Consider becoming a mentor at