As I listened to their stories, I couldn’t stop the tears. They were teenagers now, but it was easy to imagine them as 5-year-olds, or 10-year-olds as I watched their awkward gestures, shy eyes and beautiful smiles. I thought of my own children.
These were kids with stories no one wants to hear. Some told of begging for food to feed their younger siblings while their parents, crippled by addiction, traded food stamps for drugs. They told of families struggling with depression, homelessness, suicides, neglect, and abuse. They told stories no child should be telling.
It would be nice to think that they were unusual, but they weren’t. These kids represented some of the 15% of Minnesota kids who live in poverty. And poverty is often associated with conditions that put children’s health and development, education and future job success at risk. It’s a vicious, downward cycle. (And for the record, three-fourths of Minnesota families in poverty have at least one parent in the workforce.)
The kids I heard speaking about their hardships were special though. Although they represented poor, at-risk kids in Minnesota, they had broken the cycle and overcome the hardships of poverty and broken families to succeed in school. They were finalists for the Children’s Defense Fund of Minnesota‘s “Beat the Odds” scholarship. They were moving forward, out of poverty.
And what did they have in common? Each of them had one person in their life who believed in them and told them that they could succeed. Many of them only had one person. One person. That was all it took.
For many, it was a teacher or counselor. For others, it was a sibling, parent or grandparent. But those individuals, those mentors, saved the lives of each of these children in many ways, allowing them to move forward into education, propelling them forward to lead richer lives where day to day existance isn’t a struggle.
Organizations like Children’s Defense Fund help these kids in many ways, fighting for higher minimum wages for the working poor, researching maternal depression and helping poor families get the help they need.
What can you do to help?
Find a way to be a mentor. Many communities organizations and churches have reading-buddy programs and a wealth of other opportunities to help at-risk kids succeed. Tell a child (other than your own) that you believe in them. Tell them that they can be what they want to be. They can do what they want to do. They can succeed.
You might save a life, and in doing so, help build a brighter future for all of us.