- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Today, at Howard University in Washington, parents, educators, researchers, community leaders and students will gather for the White House Conference on Helping America’s Youth. We have a message for adults across America: You can make a profound difference in young people’s lives by helping them stay connected to their families, schools, and communities.

Children want and need us in their lives. They look to adults for guidance in tackling the challenges that come with growing up. Risky behaviors, including drug, alcohol and tobacco use; violence; and early sexual activity, are still among the top causes of disease and early death among youth. In addition, more children are growing up without an involved, committed, and responsible father in their lives. Studies show an overwhelming number of violent criminals in the United States are males who grew up without dads.

President Bush announced the Helping America’s Youth initiative to reverse these trends and rally people to the cause of bringing hope and opportunity to children’s lives. This past year, I’ve visited programs run by caring adults who help young people develop the strong character to make wise and healthy decisions.

In Los Angeles, Father Gregory Boyle runs a program called Homeboy Industries. He employs former gang members in homegrown businesses, including a silk-screening shop, a cafe and a bakery. The young men and women who work at Homeboy Industries develop job skills. For many, this is their first experience earning money by working — and they like the pride and security of having a job. Several participants told me that working at Homeboys was far preferable to the constant worry and anxiety of life in a gang. These young people credit Father Boyle with giving them a chance at a productive and happy life.

I’ve also visited CeaseFire Chicago, which brings together clergy, police officers, parents, teachers, doctors and others with the goal of stopping gang-related violence. Dr. Gary Slutkin, who helped found CeaseFire, began with a simple premise: Violent behavior is learned. When people grow up in an environment where violence is considered normal, they are more likely to fall into that behavior themselves. And since violent behavior is learned, people can also be taught that it is unacceptable. Dr. Slutkin and his colleagues wage an intensive campaign to stay involved with children every day and emphasize the tragic toll violence takes on families and communities.CeaseFire Chicago is working. In the Chicago neighborhood I visited, there were 10 gang-related murders in 2003. Last year, there were none.

I visited Atlanta, where college-level debaters teach middle-school students how to debate through the Computer Assisted Debate project, or CAD. The program helps students from the city’s housing projects improve their vocabulary and their language skills, which makes it more likely that they’ll complete high school and go on to college. CAD also helps students find their voice. Rather than turning to violence and anger as a means of expression, debate is a healthier option, safer for children and for their community.

Other programs I’ve visited connect children with mentors, or teach teen-age dads how to be good fathers — an especially important lesson for young men who grew up without fathers themselves.

In all the programs I’ve visited, adults teach young people by word and example how to achieve their goals and become healthy and responsible adults. Some of these programs receive money from the federal government, but many operate on slim budgets and rely on private donations. Success is based on partnerships within communities.

At today’s conference, we’ll introduce the Community Guide to Helping America’s Youth, which will help communities determine their own needs and direct communities to programs that meet their unique challenges. Gathering more data on programs will be essential to making this effort work. Washington’s think tanks, universities, and research organizations can have a lasting impact on children’s success by studying youth programs around America and making their findings public. These assessments will be a valuable tool for individuals, private organizations and governments that want to use their resources most effectively.

All of us can shape a world in which good values are encouraged and children have hope for a healthy, happy and more productive future. I urge every American to learn about the needs of young people in their communities and make a commitment to helping America’s youth.

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