Monday, July 30, 2007

Stopping a downward spiral

The future prospects of high school drop outs are often limited at best. Without a diploma they are often faced with a long series of minimum wage jobs. Moreover, when they start families, they must deal not only with severe financial constraints but also they frequently lack parenting skills and the social and economic skills needed to succeed in today’s world.

Consequently, the children of high school dropouts tend to grow up in poor households. Coupled with a mindset that does not value education they are more apt to follow in their parents’ footsteps. The victims (whether they brought it on themselves or not, they are still victims) of this so-called “generational poverty” often adopt a short-term “have it now” approach to life which often leads to drug use, poor nutrition, no savings, and overall poor decision making. Of course this feeds the cycle and soon another generation is caught in the downward spiral.

Dealing with the problem is difficult to say the least. Many of the people in the situation do not realize their own conditions or the causes of their position. Rather than admit dropping out was a mistake, they blame their employer, bad luck, or any of a million other things. Moreover, like a sports team on a losing streak, they generally lack the confidence to invest in the future (and yes education is an investment), and over time often develop the mindset that the world is against them.

And even if these substantial hurdles are somehow overcome, there are practical barriers as well. For instance, how can the dropout go back to school with a full time job? Or if the parent has children that need childcare?

The Olean Community Schools Even Start Program is designed to deal with these problems. Funded through a hodge-podge of Federal, State, and Local sources, the program works with about 100 local families on everything from Basic Living skills to GED preparation, to English as Second Language classes, to preparing to enter the workforce. (Technically Even Start is only one portion of the Community Schools program, but they operate so seamlessly that to an outsider they appear to be one).

However, things are far from perfect. Space limitations have forced the program to be spread throughout the district. Thus, the classes rotate from site to site and child care can be at another location altogether. This would be inefficient under the best circumstances, but when you add the fact that many of the parents do not have cars it is easy to see that this limits program participation.

A solution to this is to have a single location that could serve for program. Community School officials identified a building, but the work involved in converting office and warehouse space into classrooms and child care rooms was beyond their budget and expertise. This spring they asked BonaResponds for help.

While the entire job is probably a bit much for purely volunteer labor, there was much that BonaResponds could do, so in characteristic fashion, BonaResponds responded.

In April on the Spring Local Service day, a team of volunteers worked with Community School volunteers to begin the process. They tore down some walls, repaired holes in other walls, and began priming in several rooms. It was a great success, but there was much work left and so this past Saturday BonaResponds was at it again. A new team of students, community members, Bona alumni, and Community School volunteers spackled, painted, and cleaned for hours.

It is important to measure things in quantifiable terms. But when asked what BonaResponds accomplished at the Community School site it may be more important to focus on what can not be so easily quantified. It is not that I want to ignore the walls that have been removed, nor the many holes that have been filled and patched, or even the 25+ gallons of paint that now cover the new walls. No, these are all important accomplishments that are important in their own way. The real accomplishment however is something else that happened. Something that is hard to measure: the volunteers gave hope.

Slowly and surely, the new layout of the facility began to take shape. From what was a dreary old office, classroom and child care rooms appeared. People can visualize what previously had only been an idea on a piece of paper. This visualization is important not only for the Community Schools staff who must often be tempted to lose their hope, but also to the program participants who can see that people care and that there is at least hope for a better future.

Oh sure there is still work to be done. Community Schools is waiting on a grant to pay for the windows, bathrooms need to be converted and made handicap accessible, and a kitchen area just be created, but it is coming. The dream is now attainable. There is hope.

So when someone asks what was accomplished through BonaResponds Local service days, tell them a downward spiral was halted. And a new spiral—an upward one—was started!

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