Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Turning Lives Around

One of the biggest lessons to draw from the recent economic downturn is that education matters. I’ve always believed this, but the recession has made it much more obvious. Finding a job is harder than ever all over the world, but it’s especially hard for those without a degree.

In the United States, the unemployment rate among people without a high school degree is a staggering 14 percent, according to the most recent numbers.

Those without the opportunity to educate themselves often get caught in a nasty, lifelong cycle of poverty, violence and crime.

I was one of the lucky ones. I got exited from school at 17, and if it wasn’t for a handful of people who believed in me, taught me and inspired me, I wouldn’t have faired very well.

When you look at your life, you may see that a few people other than your parents were crucial to getting you to where you are now. These mentors gave you a vision – a glimpse of a brighter future you may not have seen for yourself when you’re 17 and still trying to find your way in the world.

And for those who are not born into the best circumstances, mentors can be crucial to living a fulfilling, successful life.

This is the reason why I support programs for at-risk youth. In these challenging and volatile times for young people, mentorship never mattered more.

The focus of my support is “Turn Your Life Around” (TYLA), an Auckland-based trust which works with youth identified as at risk of offending. These are young people on the cusp, as I was, of heading down that dead-end path.

TYLA was started 14 years ago in the Avondale neighbourhood of Auckland, New Zealand. Today it is a collaboration between the New Zealand Police, the government, and local communities.

The program has been a big part of my life for the past decade or more, as trustee, mentor, and fundraiser. My daughter Bex used to work full time for the trust, and now represents me on the TYLA board.

Most of those in the TYLA program have had a rough start in life. They’re usually from unstable homes and have either been involved in, or are capable of, crime and various other dysfunctional behaviours.

They come to the trust between the ages of 10 and 16, and stay in the program for up to five years or more. Each young person is given an ongoing, tailor-made support program designed to contend with their particular set of circumstances.

Because youth development does not happen in isolation, TYLA also works to support families and caregivers, empowering them to take an active role in assisting their children in making good choices. TYLA also works collaboratively with the police, social workers and schools to help ensure good outcomes.

Ultimately, the goal is to assist these young people in completing high school, and then help them on to higher education or employment.

Since it started 14 years ago, it has helped hundreds of young lives. And the trust is poised to extend its reach into other New Zealand neighborhoods. But this requires capital, so it is actively looking for funds to help achieve its mission of helping young people turn their life around, one choice at a time.

The links between poverty, illiteracy and crime are well-known. And breaking that cycle is an enormous challenge. TYLA is not a quick fix, but intelligent early intervention when young people first come into “the system” can make all the difference.