Can One Person Make a Difference?
Can we really do something to help kids—kids in foster care, kids in the throes of adolescence, the kids next door?
I mean, really. Can one person make much of a difference?
One is where we start: one young person, and one caring adult.
We're already helping, just by paying our federal income taxes. A tiny share—a fraction of a penny per dollar (in 2004, at presstime)—goes to a $45 million federal program offering Education Training Vouchers (ETVs). Child welfare departments in each state can alert teenagers in foster care about ETVs. As they graduate from high school, these teens can apply for vouchers and get up to $5,000 per year to help with their education.
Do the ETVs help? Here is what I saw in early May (2004): In one of those wood-paneled, slightly stuffy committee rooms in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Connect for Kids co-hosted the first-ever meeting of the National Foster Youth Advisory Council.
The foster youth there, now young adults, had traversed a challenging childhood. Some had been homeless, living in cars, just a few years earlier. But now, here they were among the powerful: bright, funny, and irreverent. They had come to Capitol Hill to celebrate this new council and to remind Congress that yes, good legislation can make a difference.
The youth described the difference the vouchers had made in their lives. Because of ETVs, a girl in Nevada was able to go to community college; a boy in Texas was able to buy a computer to help him with his job; a boy in Maine was able to go to college and now lobbies his state legislature for better, smarter support for foster youth. The ETVs provided essential financial support as they pursued their careers and their dreams. There was no one else to help them—but all of us.
When the message comes in to write Congress to fight for kids' programs —and we do write, and they do pass legislation—it does matter. It means that kids like these articulate, inspiring young people get a chance.
This year, be sure to celebrate at least those few cents from the taxes you paid that went to this program—because to someone, that became a lifeline.
Can we help much once our own children become teenagers?
A middle school counselor visited my elementary school PTA last month. Stay involved, she urged the parents. The kids are going through so much change; they need you.
Yes, the counselor acknowledged, they do push you away. But they need you. Be there.
It seems that science is on her side. The May 10 (2004) issue of TIME had a cover story, "Secrets of the Teen Brain." The coverage included a list of "Rules for Parents," adapted from the work of author Laurence Steinberg. Among the rules: "What you do matters" and "You can't be too loving" and "Stay involved."
CFK (now SparkAction) recognizes that staying involved means supporting kids all the way to adulthood so that they can make it to successful jobs and lives. Too many struggle through adolescence with too few supports to help them stay on track. And those that slip up find themselves without a second chance to get the education and skills they need to become productive adults. This year, we are determining how we in the child advocacy community can more persuasively communicate on behalf of those youth in transition from teenage years to adulthood.
It takes us about a third of our lives to reach self-sufficient adulthood— and that means we then have twice as long to be valuable and productive. We need to embrace staying connected with youth, even those prickly teenagers, because they need us. (And we need them.)
Actually, I feel rather relieved. I look at my young daughter frolicking in the park (with the millions of cicadas here in the Washington, DC area), and I am relieved to have "permission" to push a little, with care, to stay deeply involved as she grows up. I know I'll need others to help me during the tough teenage days and years ahead. But, I don't want to miss her adventure. I want to be there for her.
And we can be there. Each one of us, taking one action to help one child—with a letter, with a few cents of taxes, with time. By ourselves and together.
That's why we are connecting for kids. All kids, not just our own.
Kate Mattos serves as Communications Counsel for the National Education Association (NEA) and as occasional Adjunct Professor at American University's School of Communications. A mother herself, Mattos believes that it is important for communities come together to help families and children succeed.