COLUMN: Here's how you can help Cincinnati's youth become more successful

'The children aren't the problem. We are.'

CINCINNATI -- There are ways all of us can help make Cincinnati a better community for the children who call the city home, and helping won’t cost a thing.

That’s one of the important lessons in a report called “It Takes a Village: Making Cincinnati a Better Place for All Youth,” the culmination of years of research on the state of the city’s children. The Community Building Institute conducted the research at the request of the Youth Commission of Cincinnati.

The 72-page report is loaded with important findings and recommendations, such as the idea that all families need some of the same ingredients for success no matter what their household incomes are.

But none of its lessons will matter if the report sits on a shelf somewhere at City Hall collecting dust.

That’s why Cincinnati City Councilmember Yvette Simpson and her staff are planning to take the findings into the community, starting with a presentation Monday to the Cincinnati Board of Education. The goal is to encourage the school board to work with community councils in the nine neighborhoods where most Cincinnati youth live to help those youth succeed.

Yvette Simpson

After that, Simpson and her team will begin making presentations in the nine neighborhoods where 51 percent of the city’s children live.

“Our kids are hopeful, and they have the belief they can do well,” Simpson told me. “It just takes us to help them get from here to there.”

At the neighborhood level, Simpson and her staff will be asking community councils to start by recruiting 10 adults in their neighborhoods who can serve as mentors for young people there. That’s the number one thing caring adults can do to help youth -- to be there for them -- and it doesn’t cost anything, Simpson said.

East Price Hill Improvement Association President Tom Gamel said the idea makes a lot of sense to him.

“A lot of our kids come from single-parent households, and I think that’s one of the biggest issues that some of our youth have,” he said. “For example, the boys don’t have a father figure to kind of look up to and to guide them along the way. That’s why I think some kind of mentoring program would be helpful.”

The power of mentors

The Community Building Institute’s report doesn’t ignore the fact that poverty is a pervasive problem throughout Cincinnati that hurts the city’s kids.

But it points out that there are things low-income parents and guardians can do to help their children be successful despite their financial needs.

Earlier phases of the study found that, even low-income children who took part in the research, were optimistic about their futures and abilities to create good lives for themselves as adults.

But research has shown over and over that kids born into poor families are far more likely to remain poor as adults.

So the study challenges us to find ways to help young people translate that optimism into reality.

It offers 11 recommendations for making Cincinnati “a better place for all youth by focusing on people, places and community.” Those include such things as:

  • Group counseling for at-risk teens that emphasizes “self-awareness and responsible behavior.”
  • Community-based support groups for parents.
  • Expanded teen programming and activities at Cincinnati recreation centers by involving youth in decision making.
  • Engaging teens in using social media for good.
  • And, of course, creating a community-based mentoring initiative.

Avondale Community Council President Patricia Milton said she hasn’t studied the report in detail, but she is interested in the mentoring idea and thinks it could work well in her neighborhood.

“Anytime you have adults who can add something to a child’s life, a youth’s life, a different perspective and a different voice coming into their life, it adds to their life,” she told me. “We have a great number of senior citizens in our community who would be willing to step into that role.”

Gamel said East Price Hill has plenty of retired social workers and professionals who probably would be willing to become mentors to kids in that neighborhood, too.

But he would like to see some other changes to help East Price Hill’s teens, too.

‘We can do a lot more’

The neighborhood recreation center, for example, only operates Monday through Friday, and Gamel said having weekend hours would be helpful.

“There’s not a lot of activities for our kids to actually do that are constructive,” he said. “So sometimes the youth turn to some non-positive activities, which creates problems for the whole community. One of our goals is to turn that around to get more positive activities for these kids to do.”

East Price Hill already has a successful Safety Community Action Team that pays youth in the neighborhood to help pick up trash, cut grass and do other work in the neighborhood, he said. The program’s coordinator also teaches the young workers about the importance of keeping their money in the bank and earning some interest rather than spending it as soon as they get paid.

East Price Hill has beatiful views of the city. Photo courtesy of East Price Hill Improvement Association.

Expanding that program, having the recreation center open on weekends and having more mentors in the community could go a long way toward helping more young people, Gamel said.

For Simpson and the other members of the Youth Commission of Cincinnati, helping is the whole point.

And while the Child Poverty Collaborative works on institutional changes to help kids and families living in poverty, Simpson said her team will work at the grassroots level to find ways to help kids and families get their heads above water as quickly as possible.

The fact that so many young people are hopeful -- despite the challenges that their families and communities face -- is a great starting point, Simpson said.

“These children, based on what they’re experiencing, have every right to be hopeless, and they’re not,” she said. “With this foundation of hope, we can do a lot. We can do a lot more.”

All it takes is more of us taking an interest and finding a way to help.

“The children aren’t the problem,” Simpson told me. “We are.”

Councilmember Yvette Simpson and Liz Blume, director of the Community Building Institute, will present the Youth Gap Analysis Study to the Cincinnati School Board at 7 p.m. Monday Aug. 14. The final report will be available on Simpson’s webpage under the Youth Commission of Cincinnati.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.

To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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