A Love Letter & Rally Call to Our Community: Igniting the Unlimited Potential of Our Youth Is the Solution
By David Jernigan, President/CEO, Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta
Every educator knows a Courtney. The shy kid who blossoms into her greatness through the outpouring of love from community. I met my Courtney while serving as founding principal of KIPP WAYS (West Atlanta Young Scholars) Academy, where we truly embraced the “it takes a village” concept. School ran weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and we held Saturday school twice a month. Teachers, administration, staff, parents, and students were family. If a child needed homework help, students could call their teachers for assistance at any hour. If they couldn’t reach their teachers, they could call me. More than a decade has passed since I transitioned from the school, but my number remains the same and continues to be a conduit to that community.
So, it wasn’t a total surprise when Courtney’s mom recently left me a voicemail with updates about her late daughter who would be celebrating her 28th birthday this week. With a tenderness to her tone, she thanked me for the positive role our entire community played in her daughter’s life cut way too soon.
When I returned her call later that evening, we reminisced on Courtney’s middle school days. I learned that our assistant principal once gifted Courtney The Little Engine That Could, a picture book with a personalized message that helped boost Courtney’s self-esteem and now helps lift her grieving mother’s spirits. She also finds comfort in Courtney’s high school and college graduation pictures—constant reminders of the village that ignited her daughter’s unlimited potential.
“It takes a village to raise a child” is a proverb for a reason. This concept of community is not new. Family, friends, neighbors, teachers, coaches, pastors, and the likes have longed rallied around kids to foster their futures. However, the magnitude of our collective impact on our children often goes unrecognized.
As the 2021 mayoral election season gets underway, there seems to be a lot of conversation about rising crime and the safety of our youth. I argue that the best way we (as a community) can address these issues is by truly getting to its root cause. Our solution starts with an investment in our young people.
With more than 20 years in youth development, I can assure you that one of the most important investments we can make for our community is in our youth during critical non-school hours. Afterschool Alliance research spanning several states found that every $1 invested in afterschool programs saves at least $3 by “increasing kids’ earning potential, improving kids’ performance at school, and reducing crime and juvenile delinquency.” Yet, youth-centered afterschool programming is so much more than keeping kids & teens off the streets so that they aren’t committing crimes. Our investment is in our young people’s long-term success.
At the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta (BGCMA), for example, what our Club members (ages 6-18) learn through our three pillars–academic success, healthy lifestyles, and character & leadership—stays with them beyond exiting our proverbial blue doors. Our vision is young leaders strengthening their communities and the world.
One way we work daily towards realizing this vision is through implementation of signature programs like CareerBound, our workforce readiness initiative that provides kids & teens with hands-on learning, expert visits, internships, job shadowing, college tours, resume building, and interview training. It’s our way of providing solutions to Georgia’s labor shortages in high-demand fields and equipping young people with the tools they need to be successful in the workforce. In 2020, 100% of our seniors participating in the CareerBound program graduated high school with a plan for the future, such as 4-year college, 2-year technical school, or the military.
Providing a safe, inclusive, and engaging place where youth can go is the foundation for helping our kids explore the possibilities of their futures. Through our afterschool Clubs, summer camps, and outreach programs, we give kids & teens experiences that help them discover their talents and passions, as well as equip them with the tools they need to realize their full potential. Nearly all of our spaces offer a learning center, game rooms, technology center, arts facility, full court gym, meeting rooms, athletic fields, and a dedicated space for teens. Many Clubs also feature gardens and interactive music studios.
Like many youth-centered nonprofits across metro Atlanta, we are part of an ecosystem that includes families who need our support to help our children flourish. We’ve found that positive adult relationships really matter to kids. Thus, every young person in metropolitan Atlanta needs and deserves a caring adult mentor outside of their family support structure. At BGCMA, 85% of our members report that they have that when they come to our Clubs, according to statistics captured by the National Youth Outcomes Initiative, which helps Boys & Girls Clubs across the nation measure our collective impact on youth.
In addition to positive adult mentorship, “it takes a village” also includes showing up for our families when they need us most. When the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020, we responded to the emerging needs of our kids and their families with urgency and agility by making more than 7,500 outreach calls to check on family well-being, providing more than 120,000 meals, offering devices and virtual learning hubs, and implementing heightened safety protocols. Despite the economic impact the pandemic has had on our average daily attendance, we continue to offer affordable afterschool programming in underserved communities based on a sliding scale fee structure. For example, a family of three would pay approximately $100 per child for our afterschool programming, and we also offer scholarship opportunities.
BGCMA is but one example of the great youth-centered work happening across metro Atlanta. Thus, we often partner with organizations that have a shared mission. Take At-Promise Centers, for example. We have Clubs within the At-Promise-South and At-Promise-West youth community centers, which serve as the cornerstone of an ongoing effort led by the Atlanta Police Foundation and the Atlanta Police Department to empower youth and reduce the number of young people in the criminal justice system. This mission complements BGCMA’s focus on helping kids succeed in school, lead healthy lives, and become leaders. The partnership also offers unique opportunities to host programming designed to improve dialogue between youth and law enforcement, encourage civic engagement, and enhance understanding of federal, state, and local laws.
While there is a plethora of resources for kids and families in Atlanta, there always seems to be more gaps to fill. According to the Afterschool Alliance, 85% of Georgia parents believe all young people deserve access to quality afterschool and summer programs; however, for every child in an afterschool program, there are two more who would participate if a program were available.
I often wonder what becomes of our young people who do not have a safe place to go afterschool, a positive adult mentor to lean on, a support system they need and deserve.
Every educator knows a Courtney. The shy kid who blossoms into her greatness through the outpouring of love from community. Yet, every educator also knows a kid whose unlimited potential was never ignited. But it doesn’t have to be that way. As we grapple with rising crime in our communities, we can continue to invest in band-aid solutions. Or, we can invest in systemic solutions and programs that deal with the root cause to ensure our kids have the village it takes for them to thrive.