This week Youth and Opportunity United (Y.O.U.) announced the public launch of our ambitious Campaign for Youth Opportunity. As co-chairs of this effort, we’d like to share a few personal reasons why this campaign matters, and why we hope everyone in Evanston will consider participating.
Both of us are educators—a founder of a Montessori school, and a former ETHS history and social science teacher. We have seen first-hand how transformational a supporting, caring relationship with an adult can be for a kid. Ask any young person who has overcome long odds what allowed him or her to succeed, and the young person will invariably get an answer that some individual—a teacher, counselor, a family member—believed in them and would not let them quit.
We’ve served on the Y.O.U. Board for a combined 20 years in nearly every capacity including president and vice president. In that time, we’ve come to the conclusion that Y.O.U. staff, quite frankly, have a genius for establishing and maximizing relationships with young people. Relationship building takes time and labor, and the fact that Y.O.U. has tripled in size in just four years means that the level of financial support must also increase. Y.O.U. now serves over 1,500 youth and reaches over 4,000 family members each year. As a community, it is imperative that we stand up and support the growth and continued efforts of Y.O.U. to provide a holistic set of out-of-school time programs.
But why now? Our answer is simple: We are embarking on a campaign to expand the organization’s reach and impact because our work has never been more urgent than it is today. The opportunity gap in our community and country is widening. Since the early 1970s (when Y.O.U. was founded), parents in the upper quintile of income distribution in the U.S. have increased their yearly investments in out-of-school-time learning activities, such as tutoring and extracurriculars, by an average of $5,336 (adjusted for inflation). Meanwhile, parents in the bottom quintile have been able to increase their yearly investments by only $480 due to financial constraints.
The result is disastrous: by the time youth reach high school, there is a dramatic activity gap – where wealthier kids are far more likely to participate in sports, school clubs, and other enrichment. This is a tragic change from the 1970s when participation was roughly equal across income levels.
And out-of-school learning matters. As parents ourselves, we know this is where our own children learn leadership skills, how to get along with others, how to take initiative, how to fail and be resilient. This is also where young people get informal exposure to career paths and potentially build the dream of being an architect or a scientist. What happens if these experiences are available to only some of our kids?
We believe that something must be done to counteract these trends. The Campaign for Youth Opportunity is about leveling the playing field upward, and Y.O.U. knows it cannot do it alone. The agency partners with other high-impact organizations in our community that offer deep and complementary services.
Ultimately, we hope to impact the whole child – their interests, needs and feelings – not just their academic scores. We are especially proud of two unique characteristics of the Y.O.U. model that enable that holistic vision: that we deeply engage families and schools as partners in every aspect of our model and that we have trained therapists who support the mental health needs of children. At the core, everything we do is about relationships – with kids, with their families, with their schools, and with the resources of this community.
Even after decades of involvement, it still makes our hearts rejoice to see kids in our programs thrive. We’ve watched students in our classes move their grade from a D to a B average because a Y.O.U. staffer took an interest and provided sustained, dogged support. We know from experience that without Y.O.U. some of our young people would not have graduated from high school. Even more dramatically, we’ve seen young people overcome traumas, gain leadership, and become healthy, confident, self-sufficient young adults.
Universally, as parents, we all want our kids to realize their unique potential and we know that it takes a world of opportunity around them to get them there. Some families in our community have the resources to afford this full world for their children on their own. For other families, Y.O.U. is a vital part of making this world real.
We hope you will join us in supporting our Campaign for Youth Opportunity by learning, volunteering, or investing. Working together, we can ensure that the doors of opportunity are open to all.
Mr. Brady and Ms. Pearson are Nicki Pearson Co-chairs, Campaign for Youth Opportunity
For more information on the Campaign and Y.O.U. visit youthopportunity.org.