How to Help Children: Advice from The Front Porch
A Guide for Governments, School Systems and Communities
Last updated 2/20/12
At a resort in the Bahamas, the Templeton Foundation held a
workshop for some genius scientists to discuss the, “lofty philosophical concept of purpose”. Billionaire Sir John Templeton asked the scientists, “What I want to know is – how can we inspire our young people?” (Evolution is for Everyone by David Sloan Wilson, P 298) I was happy to hear that a foundation cared enough to ask the question. However, the problem was the question. We are all born inspired, enthusiastic, neurologically ready and willing to learn and explore our universe. The problem is adults and schools are squelching that natural inspiration and inclination. How can we protect children from adults that squelch their motivation, from making their quality of life abysmal? Is that too harsh? Sometimes the truth hurts.
On the Front Porch (my porch) is a 20 year old. He seems unusually lost about the direction of his life, so I asked him what his goals were. His answer was, “to be alive”. This doesn’t surprise me. When I started the Porch 15 years ago the goal was to help the kids to really “live” in all aspects of the word. It was maddening to sit in grant workshops writing empty goals like “to teach art to inner city youth”. What I wanted to write, in all honesty was “whatever you people will give us money for, so the Porch can keep these kids busy in a positive way!” Back to the young man on the Porch, he’d been in and out of the Porch since he was about 10, with large gaps as his family moved around like gypsies. He’d been our teen helper with a golden heart.
When he was just 12 years old, he very willingly would pull the wagon, with one of the little girls who had a disability sitting inside, all the way to the community center. He has always been helpful, when he was around long enough to participate in Porch activities. He helped us and we tried to help him. The one time he got in trouble I went to court with him as emotional support; we tried to help him study for his GED. So some five years have passed and he still doesn’t have his GED, but he has a baby now! Here he is a young father with only a basic level of education, because of all the missed school and no ID. The complex set of steps between birth certificate, social security card, and state identification were hoops he could never make it through on his own. What future does he have?
Now he keeps glancing off the porch, watching his back. He tells me he is enrolled in a quasi-nursing career program, that he doesn’t know the name of, in a nearby basement. I am sure this program makes money off of people with little promise that they will find a job later. His family has been moving even more often than when he was young. He doesn’t sleep much now that he is trying to negotiate being a father without a job and no job opportunities. He has been in and out of other programs besides the Porch, like a program for teens to learn to live independently. He is at the age where he will fall into the abyss of adulthood in Detroit.
He has no phone, so I posted the name of another independent living program on his Facebook. It’s a program that can help him change his life. He has not responded. All the Porch can do is be here for him and others. I told him if he wanted to study for the GED on the Porch he could come anytime. I just wait and hope he surfaces from the underbelly of Detroit again.
I heard this song. And while it is not my reality, it is the reality of so many young people like the young man that the Porch tries to help. The singer/song writer Wyclef Jean says it very succinctly in his song "Next Generation":
“We are the next generation, we ain't scared to die
The only thing I fear is the after life
Cuz I don't know what's there on the other side
But I pray the Lord forgives me, gives me one more try...
Whoa, we the next generation, look at what we facing
The kids raise themselves, all kind of temptation
Flowers and candles decorating all the pavements
No, the perpetrator ain't seeing no arraignments
Nobody cares about the feelings of the poor..."
It’s like adults have bought this cheap net with these big holes in it and are fishing for the kids who need help. The fishermen are foundations and professors and school district administrators. They keep putting the net in the water to catch the kids who need help, yet they get nothing over and over.
The kids that truly need the help are like minnows. They keep slipping through the net. I have told many of the “fishermen” through our grant writing and at meetings that they need to get a better net. They aren’t listening or they aren’t hearing us when we tell them they are wasting their resources. It’s a vicious cycle: they fish, they get paid, so they fish some more. It should not be enough that they produce a fancy report for their board members, taxpayers, and the newspapers showing all the fish they catch. The kids I see on the Porch are the ones that need help, yet they seldom receive any. (At least a couple of generations in Detroit, slipped through the net and never received help.) All the fancy reports are fish stories!
This book is about one group of children in Detroit, but it reflects the unmet needs of many children from varied socio-economic backgrounds. The Porch has offered activities for urban children: after school on the street, at community centers, and at schools for over ten years. The Porch does its work with few resources in a neighborhood made up of primarily lower middle class and poor families. There is little to no parental participation and as our kids get into their teens we find ourselves competing for their attention against the lure of the imagined “fast and easy money” they can make on the street selling drugs or committing crimes. It’s a violent environment however, by building on the strengths that are in the community and stretching available resources as thin as possible, the Porch has given many children a better quality of life. We have done this by helping them find their own skills and sense of fun while educating them and helping them see a better future for themselves.
Through the years we worked to help children and stumbled upon the simple answer for saving them. The intent of this book is first to explain the background of the solution for children. Then to help you understand poverty and the challenges children face. I will explain ways we have tried to alleviate it and then to explain the solution to you. If you skip to the main answer for all children, you will never believe it. It’s too simple. You must read Chapter 2 to really understand the depth of the experience this is rooted in. For too long it was like we were blindfolded and playing pin the tail on the donkey, but just never quite won the trip to the treasure box. Eventually though listening, we struck gold.
About Chapter One: Setting the Background
The Porch. If you are a kid, you grasp everything about the Porch fully after your first visit. You knock and a lady comes out on the Porch with whatever you want to do. Her house is like a piņata full of games and things to help you with homework, only it’s always outside. Other adults come by to teach you things or help you out. Sometimes you need a permission slip for stuff. She wants to talk to your parents and know your family. You meet other kids there. She makes some key rules clear and other adults back her up. You can’t talk about other people, cuss at or make fun of someone else or put your hands on others. The Porch grants wishes to learn or try just about anything that is not actually dangerous or outrageously expensive. School is important; being nice to other people is required. Discipline will be followed up on, i.e. she will go talk to your mother, your older brother or your great grandma about your improper behavior. She will find someone in your family who cares about you and talk about what you’ve done and not always just for the bad stuff either. There are things the kids want to know, things they want to try. The Porch is fun, so most kids decide to come back.
The Porch has tried so many types of youth programming because we have been availabilists – that means we do whatever is available because we have never had a lot of money. We keep the kids busy and get them to try new things. From all these experiences, the Porch has come to a conclusion about what kids need. And no, it’s not currently being given to children because resources are not being given to programs like The Front Porch that meet individual children’s needs.
About Chapter 2: Understanding Poverty and Solutions
Poverty and the Porch. Understanding poverty isn’t merely statistics and academic reports. I did not grow up with many resources and so I have tried my best to explain this to those who have grown up with more and may overlook many of the challenges children face. Often this plays out, sadly, in the political/funding/academic arena, with children being given programs and services that are superfluous, while their basic needs are not being met. Many programs target a piece of their life, like a program for technology for girls, but children need programs that treat them as whole, individual human beings with particular needs. I’ll help you understand and hopefully we can change things for the better.
It’s like this: as the gap between the rich and the poor increases and as these two groups inhabit increasingly isolated areas, so does the gap of understanding of poverty. More economically advantaged understand less and less about what poverty means and how to alleviate this. As I watch funding initiatives, I see that the people who are directing foundations and even just regular well off individual donors are guided by their own very often misguided understanding of poverty. Their perspective is becoming an increasingly errant viewpoint. While donors may be good intentioned, read up on poverty, look at research, they don’t live next door to poverty. They don’t know what poverty means on a daily basis. They may volunteer once a year at Thanksgiving at a soup kitchen, write a check once a year, show up at a quarterly board meeting or tutor once a month. These are all good things. Not everyone has a 100% mission driven life. However the gap in knowledge remains.
To not understand can be very harmful to poor communities, especially to poor children, the most vulnerable population in poverty. This can also mean that people with resources make unprofitable investments in solutions that will not work. There is no substitute for spending a large amount of time in the neighborhood you are trying to help and talking to the people in those neighborhoods who are FROM that neighborhood. I am not talking about some suit-clad suburban paid career executive director of a non-profit. I am talking about the neighborhood lady to whom all the kids go when they are hungry. And how exactly, would you go about this? You are already doing it by reading this book. In addition, it’s about being aware that the largest non-profit organizations are not where you are going to find this. You are going to find these folks by asking the lowest paid people you interact with – maybe you work at a bank. Do you chat with the janitor? These things are not normally happening in this country. You know the janitor gets paid next to nothing. Maybe you remember them at the holidays. Do you understand managing a household budget at minimum wage, no health insurance and raising one or more children alone like that? Give it a try. Make the budget spreadsheet. And on top of that, what about doing that in place like Detroit, where there is little public transport, many awful schools, and rare grocery stores? Why would you want to imagine the nightmare that makes their every day? Well, if you want to help people effectively, just as if you would approach a new market in a new community/culture that you wanted to break into to make money, you would have to understand the economics and the culture or you would probably fail. I am unclear why this logic is not applied to the world of philanthropy. I think many years ago when big philanthropists started with nothing, they understood poverty because they experienced it. As their philanthropic career progressed, they would almost instinctively understand when the executive director of the foundation was trying to sell them a load. Nowadays most of them only have the meager and expensive resources of academic reports and census numbers, but the real every day common sense understanding of being poor is an unknown. Misinformation and incomplete understandings have led humanity down a very dangerous road. In this book, there are several examples of how children themselves, parents, our group and others deal with poverty affecting children. I am hoping to help you understand it better.
These children do not belong to a subculture of the United States. It is an equal and increasingly different culture altogether. Even calling it a subculture is insulting – how would you like it if middle or upper class American culture was a sub-culture of lower class culture? And considering how necessity is the mother of invention, much style and artistic culture comes up from the lower class, so actually that would be more accurate. However, any way you slice it, they are all judgmental terms. We are all created equal here, right? The culture I will describe to you, a culture with few resources is not any less than the other cultures in the world. If you never plan to try to help or donate, and are not just even curious about how the people who live in those “bad” neighborhoods you pass on the freeway, then please don’t read on. However, if you are involved or interested in understanding or helping, this book is essential.
About Chapter 3: The Answer
And yes, we do have the answer, the way to give children the ladder out of poverty systematically, one by one. The Front Porch has come to the conclusion over all these years that many children need advocates: one person who ties their whole life together and makes sure they are not slipping through the cracks. Yes, I know, it’s too simple. Yes, I know you are asking why this person isn’t a parent. There are some parents who are just not going to advocate for their children no matter what incentives or punishments you give them. Many parents need the advocate as much as their children. If they will not advocate for their own children or if they are not capable, there is no reason for children to suffer. An in depth explanation is in this section. No, an “advocate” is not a volunteer mentor, nor a tutor, nor a teacher. An advocate is not a “program” that is a scatter shot of whatever kids turned in their permission slip or who fit in certain categories set up by funders or programs or neighborhoods. If every child was given what they needed instead of what lazy, cheap adults thought they should get through group programming, funding initiatives etc, with every succeeding generation there would be more and more excellent, happy parents with well-adjusted happy, educated, curious children. On the Porch we have learned it’s rare to find children who could not be helped with the right combination of supports. The actual logistics of advocacy is in chapter 3. It is surprisingly uncomplicated and if it’s done right and should be less expensive every year for each individual child, for the younger brothers and sisters of those children and for each succeeding generation, causing a ripple effect of alleviating the suffering children in poverty.
This section contains an overview of Advocacy including the history of the program, how it meets the needs of students, parents, schools, and social workers. There are also participant reviews of the program and our statistics. There is also information about supporting programs. These programs are necessary because the advocate cannot do everything. Many of these programs already exist. They may not be thorough, accessed by all the children who need them consistently and are not connected together around each child. All this equals unparalleled support for children and youth, a rigorous tool for the evaluation of children’s services and activities, and a job program for some neighborhood parents who have a heart for children and some basic skills.
It is our job as adults, whether we are parents, teachers, politicians, administrators or just community members, to be sure each individual child gets the support they need.
Now, come have a seat on the Porch and we will tell you the kids’ stories.
Chapter 1: Fairy Tale on the Porch
The Front Porch P.O. Box 24744 Detroit, Michigan 48224 USA firstname.lastname@example.org
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