In the early 1990's I was director of a 72-bed residence for teenage males and females just a few miles outside of New York City. The technical term for the program was "residential treatment center" and it consisted of a series of cottages on an 18-acre campus which also contained a school. The great majority of the young people came from high- poverty areas of the city such as the South Bronx, Bedford Stuyvesant, East New York, and others.
Many of the youth sent to us had been gang members and/or been involved in crime. I read the background information on each youth after he or she had been accepted into our program, and most of the time it was a litany of truancy from school, physical attacks on teachers or others, drug dealing, drug use, running away from home, weapons possession and so on. Many of them were deemed PINS youth, i.e. "Person in Need of Supervision" and it was often their very parents or relatives who had gone to a Family Court judge begging the latter to place the youth out of the home and in some kind of setting where the youth would be safe -- to himself and to others.
From reading the background information I also learned about the often- horrific circumstances from which most of these youth had come. Many had been raised by a single parent, in poverty. There were frequent references to a missing father or mother, parent incarcerated, parent addicted to drugs. And the majority of these youth had been removed from their home at a very early age due to child abuse or neglect. When they came to us at age 15 or 16, many had already lived in a dozen different places -- a foster home, then a different foster home, then back to the birth parents, then to an aunt or uncle, then to a grandparent, back to home, a psychiatric institution, another foster home... there was only one word for it: tragic.
I left that program in 1998 but memories of those kids stick with me. (So does the scar I have in my nose due to one unfortunate altercation there, but that is another story.) The recent dedication of the memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington, D.C. jogged one such memory. We made an effort to celebrate his January 15 holiday in a special way at our program, particularly since the majority of the youth were African-American. One year, around that date, I was walking through a male cottage, and the staff had tacked up on the hallway wall sheets that each young man there had had to complete for a school assignment. Each sheet had a picture of Dr. King , with this sentence: "I have a dream that: _____________." The assignment was for each young man to write in what his dream was.
One young man, James, whom I knew pretty well, had written , "I have a dream that: I will be more than a street person."
That stopped me in my tracks when I read it, and it still affects me, all these years later. I have thought many times about what I would have written as a teenager in completing that sentence, and what my peers might have written. "I have a dream that....I will be an engineer...a doctor....a lawyer....successful....a good parent....a sports star....own my own business....wealthy....married...." But for this young man, his big dream was that he not end up living on the street. And he likely wrote that because he grew up in neighborhoods where he saw many people in that exact condition. His greatest aspiration was that he not end up like them. To me that was incredibly sad, and very telling.
I believe that people who do this kind of work, who teach, mentor, coach and counsel kids like James, have an important mission. It is, primarily, to give them hope. It is to help them believe in themselves. Yes, we have to make sure they receive a good education, job training, and training in life skills such as hygiene, budgeting and HIV-prevention. But above all, we need to instill in them a sense of hope, a sense that life can be different, better, and that no matter what sad or unfortunate hand life has dealt them thus far, they do in fact have the internal strength, fortitude and forbearance to overcome it all, and to not only survive, but thrive, and succeed.
And I believe that youth from middle class and wealthy families need to hear this message as well. It's a frightening world and economy at present; I don't expect that to change much in the upcoming years. I believe it is incumbent upon every adult, whether a parent, aunt, uncle, teacher, coach, minister, or mentor, to deliver the message to young people that they do in fact have the qualities to not only solve whatever difficulties and challenges will come their way, but the capacity to create lives of happiness and meaning. We have to instill in them a sense of hope.
I don't know how James ended up doing in life. I think about him and pray for him as I do for all the young people I have been fortunate enough to come into contact with during the last three decades. I hope he reached his dream.