Invest in children to invest in our future

Far too many children face increased challenges in today’s world, owing to the pandemic, economic insecurity, climate change catastrophes, gun violence, and the risk of exploitation. For those who come from communities that have been systematically marginalized, and the many thousands of children who have recently arrived as refugees, these adversities can seem insurmountable.

But children are resilient, and every child has a well of untapped potential. This holiday season we need to commit to doing much more for them than donating toys. We should pledge to give all children the same that we would give our own: love, encouragement and access to opportunity.

Challenges experienced by children are significant. More than 100,000 children in New York don’t live in their own home. One in five children in New York does not have enough food to eat. Migrant children are being exploited in high-risk jobs.

Opportunities for a sound education and a career are hampered by the system. New York City schools remain the most segregated in the nation. Nearly one in five students does not graduate on time, and nearly 40% of those who do go to college, drop out after less than six months. Worse yet, estimates suggest that up to a quarter of young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are neither in school nor working.

At first glance, these problems seem unsolvable, but in fact each one of us has the capacity to support a young person in overcoming these challenges and creating a bright future for themselves. Government too can do more to help young people who face immense barriers erected by those with privilege and maintained by those with apathy.

We can all start by mentoring and supporting young people. Knowing that someone loves you unconditionally, supports you unwaveringly, and cares about you implicitly is the greatest gift we can give a child. I also believe it’s the single most important indicator of childhood stability and adult success. All children need it; too many don’t have it.

Evidence suggests that youth with mentors “are more likely to have more positive attitudes about school, have higher expectations for academic success, perform better in school, be more socially successful. And have higher incomes.”

Take Lloyd, who just earned his master’s degree from Cornell University and started a dream job in the wine industry in Napa, Calif. As Lloyd describes it, as a young child he experienced “troubles and instability”. A court order mandated him to The Children’s Village residential treatment program.

He describes feeling “overwhelmed and hopeless” and barely attending school for an entire year. But he says that it was during those dark moments that he found a guiding light in his life — Ms. Joy (yes, that’s her real name), a teacher who had unwavering belief in him and his future. Ms. Joy was a consistent nurturing presence in Lloyd’s life. He says that her commitment and faith in his ability to succeed “shaped my future in great ways.”

More of us can take a cue from Ms. Joy. Mentorship opportunities abound both at The Children’s Village, the nonprofit where I am privileged to work, and at many other organizations in New York City. City government has recognized the power of long-term mentoring and has rightfully invested in one of the nation’s most successful efforts, Fair Futures.

The city should continue to fund mentoring programs despite all its current financial hardships because we must build for the future. And we should all invest more of our time and our money in young people. The gift of toys is temporary; the gift of stable relationships and mentoring lasts a lifetime.

Kohomban is the president and CEO of The Children’s Village.

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