I think young people are fascinating. I think that I learn more from them than I do from most adults. I think that they need attention today more than ever. That’s why I’ve dedicated so much of my life to making things better for them, and that’s why I spend “free time” reading reports on the state of young people around the world, and that’s why I drop what I’m doing every time I hear a television program about the plight of children.
Occupations that deal directly with the youngest members of our population aren’t glamorous. Teachers are underpaid. Pediatricians are mocked for going into a “soft” sector of the medical profession. Involved with a non-profit that serves children? HA! Do you really think you can “make a difference?” Don’t get me started on how underrated mothers and other childcare providers are…
In my line of work, I deal with children from age 3 to age 18. The three year olds are presumed to be spoiled brats who probably sit around watching Sesame Street all day. The elementary kids are out of control. The middle schoolers have too much attitude. The high schoolers are beyond being saved from a future littered with drugs, alcohol and promiscuity. Why do people look at our youth and assume hopelessness rather than envisioning opportunities?
I’ve seen a lot. I’ve seen pregnant teens who feel like they’ve lost their identity because of one mistake. They’re merely looking to be accepted by someone without judgment. I’ve seen a girl who was running away from home and coming back high. She just wanted someone to talk to about how scared she was about trying to live a better life. I’ve seen kids shy away from their peers who assumed they were “weird.” They were experiencing death of loved ones or other difficulties at home.
The point is that these kids weren’t lost. They were HUNGRY for attention. They were HUNGRY for a mentor. They were HUNGRY for someone who would take the time and give them the respect that they deserved and the encouragement that they so desperately need. How heartless would we be if we passed by a child in need of food? How can we simply pass by a child who was in need of spiritual, mental or emotional nourishment?
The argument that it costs too many resources–time, money, energy–to invest in these little ones will always exist. But I ask, more importantly, what’s the cost of not making that investment? What’s the cost of not having a dedicated teacher in every classroom? What’s the cost of not having counseling services for young people for whom everything is a crisis? What’s the cost of not having productive after school programs that address the needs of young people? What’s the cost of not developing a child physically, mentally, spiritually, creatively and emotionally? And is that an expense that we’re willing to take on?
So again, I see 11 year olds who think they’re 18. I see 18 year olds shouldering the burdens of keeping the house clean, making sure that dinner is on the table and taking care of younger siblings when all they really want is to make decent grades and go to the game on Friday. I see 8 year olds whose parents appease their needs with new toys and video games. It’s easy to look at them and wonder “How can one person possibly make a difference?” Given the responsibility we have in shaping the next generation, I can’t help but wonder “How can one person not?”