We often speak about caring for our children, about wanting Fresno and our communities to be safe and healthy places for our kids to grow up.
This rhetoric reaches its peak annually around Kids Day, when thousands of volunteers, businesses and private organizations join together to support Valley Children’s Hospital. This huge effort is only the tip of what parents, families, teachers, social service workers, police and many others do every day to nurture our children and help them thrive in life.
Yet there is another reality that runs counter to our best efforts. Twelve years ago, I wrote a commentary for The Bee decrying how difficult things were for kids in our community. I proposed these solutions:
▪ The community should team up to make Fresno become one of the best places in California for young people.
▪ The city of Fresno and Fresno County, bolstered by private groups, should lead efforts toward this goal.
▪ Finally, while I was not interested in starting a new government bureaucracy, I recommended that a Youth Advocate office be created so that someone was responsible for gathering data, exploring best practices and providing leadership in planning and coordination as we move together.
So, how have we done?
A lot has happened since 2004, much of it very good. Fresno has a number of nonprofit organizations working to support kids, parents and schools. Among them are The Children’s Movement Fresno, First 5 Fresno County, the Central California Children’s Institute at Fresno State, Reading and Beyond, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Fresno County and the broad-based Cradle to Career (C2C) Partnership (formerly known as Fresno Area Strive).
In addition, Fresno City Hall has engaged its Parks and Recreation Department in supporting after-school activities for young people and health-supporting enrichment programs for kids. Fresno Unified has made major gains in reducing dropouts and improving graduation rates, as have other local school districts.
More work to be done
Nevertheless, ongoing studies by independent agencies show Fresno County still lagging most of California in major areas of health, education, child welfare and economic well-being. The most recent California County Scorecard published by Children Now this year shows Fresno County with 39 percent of children living in poverty. Out of 58 California counties, Fresno County ranks No. 45 in 3- and 4-year-olds who attend preschool, No. 48 in 12th-graders who graduate on time, and last in children who are not living in poverty.
Such facts are sobering – though not unexpected because of Fresno County’s high poverty rate. But instead of shrugging our shoulders, we should continue to focus our efforts on helping children grow into healthy and productive adults.
The good news is, we have wealth in Fresno, a good bit of it. Yet poverty is woven in and around those “nicer” parts of town; it is often concentrated in areas long segregated by social and economic forces, as national studies have confirmed. And the consequences of deep, chronic poverty affect all of us, in crime, security and discipline issues in schools, and the drain on police and public services.
Area poverty and child poverty are reflected in high child-abuse rates and high teen pregnancy rates, as well as crime, school dropouts, gangs and drug use. Teen pregnancy remains the nation’s leading cause of girls dropping out of school.
Now, here is something I’d like you to really think about. The challenges today of childhood and adolescence put good kids in healthy homes under strains most of their parents and grandparents can hardly imagine. Children raised in poverty, in broken or dysfunctional homes, or kids who are abused or neglected face even greater challenges.
When young people struggle, the effects on dropouts, crime, gang participation, drug and alcohol abuse are compounded. And worse, talented, exuberant young souls are defeated and demoralized, lost as resources for economic growth, art, health and spirit in our region. Beyond the economic and crime consequences, we need to think about the well-being of all children in our community. We need to consider them as our own.
How do we want our own children to grow up and thrive, and what would we do if our own children were malnourished, disconnected at school, or spiraling into despair or destructive behavior?
A statement widely attributed to Frederick Douglass asserts, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Any loving parent who has seen their child experience incarceration, addiction, mental illness or economic failure knows the painful truth in this statement. Putting our own children back together after they have been broken is a heartache and a tragedy for any family.
We have good people, caring people, and many resources. Many folks have been working long and hard in this area, so we have a foundation to build upon. And we do not have to reinvent the wheel. There are exemplary programs in many U.S. cities.
▪ Boston has involved major businesses in funding a Boston Compact to fund summer jobs and college scholarships as incentives to build hope among struggling youth. Indianapolis joins Boston as a large city tapping corporate sponsors and investors to create summer jobs and school-year internships for students who want to be responsible.
▪ Cities such as Providence, R.I.; Louisville, Ky.; and St. Paul, Minn., boast examples of outstanding after-school programs.
▪ In New Orleans, the Bloomberg Family Foundation and JPMorgan Chase invested $7.5 million to create YouthForce NOLA to improve work-related skills and offer intern experiences to more than 1,000 students. Our local leaders should be lobbying the Bloomberg Family Foundation to invest its philanthropic dollars in Fresno.
▪ The arts – including music, film and creative writing – can give young people a creative channel for their emotions. In Los Angeles, the Harmony Project is a music program based in troubled neighborhoods that puts instruments in the hands of children before the gang culture gives them a gun.
▪ In technology and vocational education, West Philadelphia innovators started an after-school program to engage young minority students around math and science. These students won the Philadelphia Science Fair and later built a hybrid super-car that competed well against major university teams for the X PRIZE.
With leadership and cooperation, Fresno can tap experts to help us identify best practices and strategies that work with children and teens across America. The opportunities to learn from others and tap movements already in practice are great.
Keep politics out of it
Integrating, cooperating and building programs that give hope and strength to our children should not be a political or ideological issue. This is underscored by a profound statement of President Herbert Hoover during the 1928 campaign: “There should be no child in America who does not live under sound conditions of health; who does not have full opportunity for education from the kindergarten to the university; who is not free from injurious labor; who does not have stimulation to ambition to the fullest extent of his or her capacities. … A single generation of Americans of such a production would prevent more crime and illness and give more of spirit and progress than all of the repressive laws and police we can ever invent, and it would cost less.”
We can heed Hoover’s advice and up our game, or we can continue to face endemic poverty, demoralization, trouble and needless death among our youth. We can rank average or worse in most of the measures that define quality of life for young people, or we can lift our vision and strive to be the best.
Why not make that effort for Fresno youth and the entire community? Why shouldn’t we be the best?
Warren Kessler is professor emeritus at Fresno State.