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Exposing youth to positive people and productive options can change everything


Recently, one of United Way’s funded agencies invited me to hear from “Jeremy,” a 17-year-old young man who was an accessory to a car theft that led to a more serious crime. This local nonprofit is providing Jeremy an opportunity to turn his life around by practicing critical life, social and job skills. While listening to his story, it was clear to me that his most impressionable years were sacrificed partly because he wasn’t exposed to a different path. How many teens like Jeremy are lost in their own surroundings, unaware that they have the power to develop their full potential?

Exposing young people to options that challenge their current realities makes moral and economic sense for the person and for our community.
As our region grapples with the alarming increase of car thefts and other crimes committed by juveniles, we need to think and act more strategically about our responsibility, as individuals and as a community, to change the trajectory of a generation of youth.
There are myriad actions we can take. One example is the current “Lock It Down QC” marketing campaign.  It implores us to lock our cars to prevent crime. Of course, we should do that.  We also have to do MORE to address the root circumstances and underlying conditions that set too many of our young people on a course of bad decisions, criminal behavior and, ultimately, a life without opportunity.
Within United Way’s vision, we are committed to prioritizing education, focusing proactively on mentorship and exposing our young Quad Citizens to positive people and productive opportunities. This kind of exposure can help bring the negativity that threatens the development of youth to its knees. There are also socioeconomic factors that place constraints on children, through no fault of their own, and have lasting impacts on their social and emotional development. Too many of our young people have seemingly limited options and need broader exposure — it can change everything.
I am convinced that the vast majority of people, regardless of ZIP code or financial status, strive to do everything they know how to position their kids for a better life. As someone who has come from an economically and socially dysfunctional home, with a mostly absentee, single mom who suffered with alcoholism, depression and eventually committed suicide, I understand the reality that there are simply some things you don’t know because you have not been exposed to them. This doesn’t have to be the case. I credit teachers, parents of my friends and observant supervisors at the jobs I held as a teen for taking an interest, as well as showing and guiding me down a more productive and fulfilling life path.

Lighting the Fire for Quad-Cities Youth

I believe that one of our region’s greatest opportunities and responsibilities is to light the inner fire of young people and those who had a rough start. We can accomplish this in a systematic and thoughtful way.
Every kid in this region should experience art and history in a way that captures their imagination. For me, my exposure to music as a young person led to exploration of writing, playing the piano and painting. In high school, I was motivated by my English teacher telling me that she believed I was a decent writer.  Her words encouraged me and placed a passion in my heart that still burns.
Every kid in our region should have an opportunity to build a relationship with one or more of our fine college campuses. This goes beyond a one-time visit. This relationship requires multiple visits over a period of time, including the opportunity to have meaningful interactions with students and instructors.
Every kid in our region should have the opportunity to visit our manufacturing plants, IT companies, construction programs, financial service firms, medical facilities — or whatever career path that might interest them. They should be able to talk to workers from a variety of life paths.
Every kid in this region should have the chance to discover what they enjoy doing and meet people who get to do it for a living.
We are at a crossroads. It’s our duty to support our schools, assess areas where we can effect real change – identify ways to organize and scale diverse exposures for youth, and then rally individuals and institutions to help.
This is one solution  – investing in young people, showing them alternative paths and helping them walk along their journey. To change the trajectory of a generation we have to capture the hearts and minds of young people, especially in our most distressed neighborhoods.
When we tackle the root causes of important issues, rather than the symptoms, we improve whole neighborhoods, communities, groups and lives. Let’s work together to make this vision a reality. In the long run, it’s a solid return on investment — I am living proof.
Rene Gellerman
President & CEO, United Way Quad Cities
NOTE: A version of this article ran in the March 3 edition of the Quad-City Times and is available to read on their website.