The moral value of changing the life trajectory of even one child is incalculable. But providing intensive, long-term mentors for children who face the biggest barriers also makes economic sense. (Courtesy photo)

Supporting all our children

Mentors can help poor kids grow and thrive

By Shamann Walton and Michael Rugen

Dr. Martin Luther King gave a speech at Stanford in 1967 entitled The Other America, describing millions of Americans who find themselves living “on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” Five decades later, his words still describe certain San Francisco neighborhoods.

For example, in Bayview Hunters Point, 94 percent of residents are people of color and nearly 40 percent live below the poverty line. In one public housing community, 79 percent of adults are unemployed and the average household income is $12,750. The homicide rate in Bayview Hunters Point is nearly five times the citywide average.

Dr. King concluded that “the greatest tragedy of this other America is what it does to little children [who] grow up in an arena of blasted hopes and shattered dreams.” Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, recently appointed California’s first surgeon general, has shown that exposure to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) — such as domestic violence, parental incarceration or family substance abuse — not only harms children’s social and emotional development, but can also hinder brain development and suppress immune systems. In Bayview Hunters Point, 50 percent of households include one or more children (compared to less than 20 percent city-wide) but fewer than 15 percent of students in some neighborhood elementary schools are performing at or above grade level.

Shamann represents Bayview Hunters Point on the Board of Supervisors and Michael is the executive director of Friends of the Children – SF Bay Area, a nonprofit organization located there. We know that the children in our community have immense potential and, with dedicated support from caring adults, they can overcome the huge barriers they face. Some of their parents must work multiple jobs to support their families and some face significant challenges of their own, so other adults must step in to provide the additional support their children need to realize their dreams.

Growing up poor in San Francisco and Vallejo, Shamann was attracted to the fast life until a dedicated mentor showed him the value of higher education. Mayor London Breed speaks often about her own upbringing in San Francisco public housing and credits a group of caring mentors for helping her avoid the fate of her siblings, who fell victim to incarceration and drugs.

Research confirms what those personal stories suggest. In her book The Deepest Well, Dr. Harris concludes that a supportive adult relationship is the surest way to overcome excessive exposure to ACEs. At-risk children who have a mentor, are 55 percent more likely to enroll in college and 130 percent more likely to hold leadership positions.

Volunteer mentors helped Shamann, Mayor Breed and countless others overcome the challenges of poverty, but more is needed to support some children. Friends of the Children systematically identifies and recruits the kindergarteners who face the biggest barriers and hires salaried, professional mentors, whose full-time job is to provide those children with consistent adult support through high school graduation — 12 years, no matter what. By taking mentorship out of the volunteer realm, Friends of the Children provides the systematic, long-term support that our most vulnerable children need. Third-party studies show that, for over 25 years, this simple yet radical model has been empowering children to break the generational cycle of poverty.

The moral value of changing the life trajectory of even one child is incalculable. But providing intensive, long-term mentors for children who face the biggest barriers also makes economic sense. It costs $71,000 to incarcerate one prisoner for one year in California. Each child who drops out of school costs California taxpayers $296,000. Teen pregnancies cost our taxpayers $956 million annually. By walking beside each child on a path toward a satisfying and productive life, professional mentors help society avoid those staggering costs.

Mayor Breed recently envisioned a day when every child will have a mentor “so that we change what is normal in low-income neighborhoods in our city, so that all children grow and thrive in San Francisco.”

We urge government officials, philanthropists and individual citizens to provide our most vulnerable children with the long-term, professional mentoring support they need, and to make Mayor Breed’s vision a reality.

Shamann Walton is a San Francisco supervisor representing District 10 and Michael Rugen is the executive director of Friends of the Children – SF Bay Area.

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