Outstanding service projects that address specific and critical human and environmental needs develop at home and abroad. Somewhere within humanity is the ability to care for others, even those we will never know in countries we will never visit. We even find it in our hearts to care for endangered animals that we would never invite into our homes. Our outreach, which begins as ideas and converts to action, is a powerful force.
Who among us has not heard of a wonderful and needed service project? Perhaps someone we know has created such a project. I supported my daughter, Charlotte, in creating a project in our community. Between the ages of five and eighteen she raised and managed over $70,000 for community-based organizations, creating monthly reports throughout this time for her supporters to share how the funds were spent (charlottescircle.com). She was capable of contributing and was happy to engage in the adult world. Her project touched on the power of the individual sustained commitment, prompting further questions and exploration.
Several years into Charlotte’s project, the director of our United Way office brought the issue of food insecurity in our community to my attention, as periodic canned food drives weren’t enough. When I searched online for other food-garnering models that support food banks, I found one in Florida (inspired by a project in Kentucky), one in Kansas, and one in Georgia. These project models provided enough ideas for us to create an initiative in our community in New York. The term “United States” took on a new meaning in this context as ideas from many states converged in the model we created.
The needs in our community existed in others. We were not alone in facing this challenge, and we could access solutions created by others elsewhere. Americans were doing what they do best—solve problems in existing systems or create new systems. Our unity was palpable.
I collected descriptions of projects that made a difference or created a solution—even part of a solution—for an area of human or environmental need. I started organizing them by topic and contacting project originators, in some cases creating replications with project originators and managers.
One question people ask when coming together to problem solve is, “How are others addressing this need?” Mayors and governors, members of various committees, and others meet to discuss similar challenges and seek solutions others may have already found. On the other end of the spectrum, project originators often seek replication of their work nationwide, knowing that the challenges they have successfully tackled exist elsewhere.
As I continued to organize projects and topic areas in a database, I saw it as a checklist of projects that could be available in all communities. A national checklist of projects would provide solutions that others could replicate. It would even bring community needs—of which we might be unaware—to our attention, along with solution-bearing project models. Such a collection of projects would inspire us as they touch upon our demonstrated ability, our ingenuity, and our commitment to models of solution. They would be “of the people.”
The Depth of Our Problem Solving
I would read about a single service project and be inspired by the work taking place. This inspiration heightened as I gathered projects under specific topics. The quantity of solution making and the variety of approaches became apparent, and solutions seemed more plausible with this information in mind. To share this perspective, I have chosen a single topic to highlight the depth of problem solving among ourselves.
Mentoring Our Youth: Filling the Void
Many adults are mentoring our youth, often restructuring their professional lives to focus exclusively on caring for the welfare of our youth. Commitment, creativity, and flexibility are the typical markings of these mentors. They find the greatest satisfaction in transforming negatives into positives. They often work long hours with little or no pay to achieve the ultimate reward—the rejuvenation of positive life direction in youth.
In the topic of mentoring our youth, the most intense challenge is in situations where gangs have taken over neighborhoods, resulting in violence and instability. Gang leaders know our youth seek inclusion and a sense of family, of belonging; of even more value, our youth have time and energy that can be redirected.
None of us—regardless of where we live—can afford to ignore the extreme outcomes of gang culture. Shades of gang mentality pop up in bullying and cliques, and terrorist organizations work with great similarity to gangs, wielding a wide sphere of influence. Such an infection requires an antidote that will secure health in all our communities.
The solution builders who address the severe stages of this societal illness in the urban trenches can help guide us toward an antidote. Their work suggests ways to strengthen the educational foundation on which youth can build lives positively integrated with their communities.
Service models that mentor where gangs are active are replacing and restoring the growth potential of youth already caught in the web of gangs. These models educate to prevent gang involvement and provide alternatives for youth. The models below come from Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington, D.C. Commonalities and distinctions exist in these youth mentoring projects created by ourselves as Americans.
Council for Unity—Bob De Sena, Brooklyn, NY, 1975
Youth are empowered to develop nonviolent solutions to violence and bias in their environments. Gang members are gathered to talk and take the lead in finding solutions without violence. The organization works with schools, businesses, youth organizations, law enforcement, and correctional facilities. Safety, unity, and achievement are mission goals that inform curricular programs, training, and interventions. The overwhelming majority of students who participate in their curricular programs go on to college.
Guardian Angels—Curtis Sliwa, NYC, NY, 1979
Inner-city youth are encouraged to take responsibility in cleaning and safeguarding their neighborhoods by patrolling streets, subways, and events. CyberAngels, created in 1995, extends protection to Internet threats, which are difficult to detect.
Boston Ten Point Coalition—Boston, MA, 1992
This ecumenical group of Christian clergy and lay leaders focus on providing a nurturing environment for high-risk youth who manifest violent, callous, or self-destructive behaviors; youth whom other agencies are frequently unable to serve.
Ceasefire—Chicago, IL, 2000
Ceasefire detects and interrupts the spread of violent behavior, using well-trained individuals who have credibility in their communities. These professionals know who has influence, who to talk to, and how to anticipate and de-escalate violent situations. As outreach workers, “interrupters,” and canvassers, they work to resolve conflicts through intervention and mediation and connect those beyond the reach of traditional social systems with resources. CeaseFire takes a public-health approach to public safety in that it views violence as a disease from which we can recover.
Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence—Teny Gross, Providence, RI, 2001
This organization hires ex-offenders to speak from their own experiences and convince young people not to answer the loss of their friends with more shootings and bloodshed. These ex-offenders, trained in violence intervention, work in close partnership with Providence police.
First Response Ministry—Greater Love Tabernacle Church (GLT) Michael Person, William Dickerson, Dorchester, MA, 2001
When a homicide occurs, GLT rushes to the scene to offer support to homicide victims’ families and tough love to those who witnessed or participated in a crime. They work to diffuse tension, plan for funerals, help witnesses come forward, and encourage perpetrators to turn themselves in, emphasizing accountability and preventative education for those not yet caught in the cycle of violence.
Mentoring Today—Whitney Louchheim and Penelope Spain, Washington, D.C., 2005
Boys under age eighteen get help with legal issues, housing, and family relationships before and after their release from jail to ensure successful reintegration into their families and communities. Mentoring Today makes connections with youth four months before their scheduled releases and continues beyond as needed.
Youth Services—Cook County, Chicago, IL 1995
Pretrial and post trial youths not considered dangerous (after a complex screening process) receive alternatives to jail that include home confinement (leaving home only for school), an electronic bracelet monitoring system, and a reporting-center program. Instead of being jailed and stigmatized, these youth can live at home and go to school while spending five hours each evening at a center that provides transportation, a meal, and programming that ranges from current-events discussions and bowling to pet therapy and victim-impact panels. This effort reduces the population in detention; the majority of youth get to court on time and crime-free.
Teen Courts—Over 1,200 teen courts in 49 states
Youth and adult volunteers help with the disposition and sentencing of juveniles and delinquents referred to local youth and teen courts. These courts hold juveniles accountable for their delinquent and criminal behaviors, promote restorative justice principles, and help educate youth about the legal system, incorporating civic and service life lessons.
ROCA—Mary Baldwin, Chelsea, MA, 1988
This program helps young people ages fourteen to twenty-four from a variety of troubled circumstances reengage in society through education, employment, and life-skills programming. They are visited at home, taken to and from school, and provided with a safe environment that includes free dinners, a gym, music labs, and training in cabinetmaking, carpentry, jewelry making, dance, nutrition, and cooking.
While these projects reflect mentoring prompted by the presence of gangs and criminal activity, the projects below embody a transition toward mentoring youth with activities to “fill the void” that otherwise could be filled with destructive vices.
Our youth become vulnerable to destructive choices when there is vacant space, when they have not discovered constructive areas of interest to fill out the larger dimension of their lives. Our schools are not enough, and programs for music, theater, and sports are not available nationwide for all youth. These programs as well do not offer sufficient variety or sustained engagement for all our youth. Just like adults, the scope of interest and gift among our youth is highly varied.
Typically, the project topics that follow are based on the personal backgrounds or interests of the projects’ originators. They may come from the perspective of a remedy, a preventative alternative, or simply the desire to share and engage with youth. The projects provide an opportunity for youth to learn and grow and a safe place where they feel dignity and care for their person—a family context. Providing our youth with activities and inclusion with us builds community and protection against negative influences for us all.
The models below come from California, Florida, Massachusetts, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Texas.
Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural and Bookstore—Luis Rodriguez, Sylmar, CA, 2001
This bookstore has a performance hall and an art and music studio where writers share their work at open mikes and youth can record demo tapes or poetry. Youth are encouraged to replace graffiti with mural painting and learn about Native American rituals as spiritual outlets. It is the only bookstore in the nation’s second-largest Mexican community and also serves as a Chicano cultural center.
Midnight Basketball (MBL)—G. Van Standifer, Glenarden, MD, 1986
League games take place from 10:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m., when temptations to engage in crime and drug activity are greatest. The program has proven effective in helping young men develop self-esteem, gain the skills and the drive to finish school, get GEDs, further their education, learn trades, or find employment. It also gives them the self-respect and inner strength to avoid drugs and resist criminal activity.
Tenacity—Ned Eames, Boston, MA, 1999
Eames uses his background in tennis to reach students in danger of dropping out of high school by teaching tennis and literacy. Kids meet three or four times a week for three-hour sessions of tennis and studying English and language arts. Summer sessions run as well. The program’s goal is to strengthen academic performance, and students in the program have a significantly higher high school graduation rate than average in Boston.
Experience Aviation—Barrington Irving, Miami, Florida, 2005
Irving saw the convergence between an industry that needed young talent and kids on the streets with nothing to do. Combining education, entrepreneurship, and his extensive background in aviation, he created a nonprofit learning center that introduces children to the joy of flying.
After School Drill Team—Willie Ellington Bell, Kansas City, MO 2008
When Bell noticed that there were no extracurricular activities at Blenheim Elementary, he created a drill team. The program fosters discipline and has helped with behavioral problems and academics; parents from other schools have requested participation for their children.
9th Street Youth Golf Academy—Charlie Seymour, San Bernardino, CA, 1997
After he retired, Seymour devoted his time and much of his pension to creating a youth golf academy for children in San Bernardino’s low-income areas. The program was to combine academic tutoring with lessons from golf: self-discipline, honesty, self-control, perseverance, and attention to detail. Thirteen acres of donated land were enough to create a three-hole golf course/learning center. Although Seymour died prior to the completion of the academy, his idea and planning still serves as a project model.
GlassRoots Nifty Program—Pat Kettenring, Newark, NJ, 2001
This program offers classes in flameworking, kilnforming, lampworking, casting, and glassblowing at little or no cost for at-risk youth in exchange for volunteering or interning. Students learn patience, teamwork, discipline, and business skills as they progress from making beads to blowing glass. They write business plans for the products they produce, present them to business leaders in the community, and attend art shows to sell their works.
Mural Arts Program—Jane Golden, Philadelphia, PA, 1984
Golden empowered graffiti artists to take active roles in beautifying their neighborhoods by telling their stories and passing on culture and tradition. The Mural Arts Program engages thousands of at-risk children, youth, and adults in free programs that teach transferable life and job skills such as taking personal responsibility, teamwork, and creative problem solving. Their educational programs in prisons and rehabilitation centers use the restorative power of art to break the cycle of crime and violence in communities.
Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP)—David Levin and Michael Feinberg, Houston, TX, 1995
KIPP is a national network of open-enrollment and free college-prep public schools. Under contracts signed by students, parents, and teachers, students from low-income families in underserved communities go to school from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, every other Saturday morning, and for an extra month in the summer. In a “no excuses” culture of strict discipline, they earn or lose points toward a weekly “paycheck” that can be cashed in for books or T-shirts at the school store or used toward a weeklong field trip. KIPP has a track record of outstanding high-school graduation rates, and a high percentage of its students go on to college.
Spark Program—Chris Balme and Melia Dicker, San Francisco, CA, 2004
Spark connects volunteer professionals with middle school students from disadvantaged communities in one-on-one workplace apprenticeships. Students identify a “dream job,” apprentice with a mentor in that line of work, and take a leadership class that connects the apprenticeship with learning in school. As students explore the school-to-career connection, the relevance of their education is strengthened, motivating students to work hard to achieve their dreams. The overwhelming majority of students who apprentice go on to college.
The Three Doctors Foundation—Sampson Davis, Rameck Hunt, George Jenkins, Newark, NJ, 2002
As teenage boys growing up on tough, inner-city streets, they made a pact to stick together, go to college, graduate, and become doctors. Serving as inspirational models of achievement, they stress qualities of self-reliance and inner strength and a strategy of surrounding yourself with like-minded people with similar aspirations. Their premise is that children need to see models that support their aspirations.
YouthBuild—Dorothy Stoneman, East Harlem, NY, 1978
When Stoneman asked low-income teens what they would do for their communities, they said they would take back abandoned houses from drug dealers, restore them, and give them to homeless families. Today, nationwide, YouthBuild students work full-time on developing workplace skills and completing GEDs or high school graduation requirements. This program integrates employment, housing, crime prevention, leadership development, and community service as students learn construction trades, landscaping, facilities management, and other skills. After up to twenty-four months of training, students head to college, jobs, or both.
Knitting Together a Community—Judith Symonds, Maplewood, NJ, 2002
Originally conceived as a winter recess activity, this program continued throughout the year. Elementary-school children as young as six participate. Students make friendships as they mentor their peers in knitting skills with the support of adults. The program teaches children success through persistence, concentration, control, follow-through, and mastery while improving fine-motor skills and hand-eye coordination.
Needle Arts Mentoring Program—Marilyn North and Bonnie Lively, Seaside, OR, 1997
Created for at-risk middle school students, the program promotes problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity. Caring, one-on-one relationships develop between adults and youth as they work on needle arts. Afghan squares for donation to charities are often first projects.
The foregoing examples from my personal collection, no doubt, fall short of the whole of projects in the topic area of mentoring youth, but they illustrate the depth of models in just one area. A national community checklist of projects organized by topics would allow us to see the wealth of our resources along with specific steps we could take to address topics in our communities. For this particular topic, city officials might focus on programs to address the presence of gangs, while some senior citizens might find inspiration to start knitting groups with youth. Others may join with youth to create new projects based on personal interests. The response may be eclectic or ordered—the more influences, the greater the influx of health and inspiration in our communities.