CEO, Children’s Champion
Does lack of activities for youth in town correlate with crime?
I founded the group Children’s Champion when I saw a need in my current job [with the Virginia Department of Health]. I used to go into the courts and see youth who needed a certain outlet, didn’t have that outlet, and weren’t able to express themselves. I saw that the youth were involved in crime because they really didn’t have an outlet or somebody to kind of guide them and to show them a different route, and to also have different activities related around youth and socialization. Our kick-off initiative is our life-skills coaching with kids in the juvenile justice system.
A lot of the crime that we saw was social crime, someone who committed a crime due to the fact that they were with somebody else who had intentions to commit the crime. And I would talk to these youth and ask them, “How did you end up in that situation in the first place?” It was centered around the fact that they didn’t have any place else to be. Or anybody else they thought they could hang out with, that they could socialize with or be around, or different safe places and people to be around. So that’s when I saw a correlation. They were involving themselves in activities with people that weren’t necessarily the best places or people to be involved with, solely because they didn’t have an alternative.
Is a town open to gangs coming in if kids don’t have something to belong to or identify with?
Right. So those kids are ending up in gangs. Or even if they’re not in gangs, all kids have a mischievous nature. So if we don’t provide those places and those opportunities for kids to explore their mischievous nature, they’ll find it. Somebody may end up doing something which they wouldn’t normally do if they had an afterschool program to attend or if they had a nature camp or a nature conference and be able to get some of those curiosities out. Or something as small as having a basketball tournament. [If a town were to institute a basketball tournament] at least for that one week in the evening when they get out of school, they have a safe place to go where they can release some energy, hang out with friends and socialize with family. At least for that particular time, their minds are occupied with something positive. Just creating those spaces – whether they be after-school programs or whatever your town feels it can do to invest in the children up front.
What if a town doesn’t have an organization like yours to help and provide expertise? Should they try to work with well-known organizations like Big Brothers, Big Sisters?
Organizations like Big Brothers, Big Sisters and Boys and Girls Clubs – things of that nature – be open and receptive to those groups being in your community. Also, encourage people from the community [who might seek grants for such work]. Maybe hiring a youth-development specialist, creating a youth-development department within the government. Then employing people through the city to tackle some of these issues related to youth. So I think it’s a combination of all of those things. It’s not just a one-stop shop or a one-shot answer to all of those things need to be done.
Somebody, as soon as possible, needs to fill that space in that young person’s life with some positive energy because, eventually, some negative energy will find its way into that young person’s life if that positive energy is not there. That’s not to say that negative energy will never show up. There will always be adversity, things that will show up and maybe tempt a young person. But if that young person early on has a positive foundation in which they can fall back on, in which they can hold tight to, that the city has invested in them, that the family has invested in them, that nonprofits and small organizations in the area have invested in them… They have that foundation that they are able to fall back on, and they are more likely to steer clear of [negative influences].
Do towns overlook this age group, and should mayors be paying more attention?
Water, sewer, taxes – all of those things are very important. But your young people are your future. If we don’t put our young people in a position to be successful, then our economy will always be in the situation it’s in. So with smaller towns, you have to invest in young people, because those are the ones who are going to be using those resources that you’re worried about in the future. If you invest in your young people, then the young people leave, become further educated, have different experiences, and hopefully because of the investment that you have now made in them, they bring that knowledge and experience back to the town that has invested in them so greatly. Hopefully to grow your small town into a bigger town.