April 24, 2017 – National Volunteer Week is being acknowledged this week to celebrate the people who volunteer their time to make their communities better places to live. Primarily, when people think about volunteering, they are thinking about connecting directly with someone or something – reading to a 3rd grader, mentoring a teen. These things are important, and I do these things in my volunteer time too. They change the circumstances of individual children, youth, families and communities – critically important work.
However, everyone who has done these things, read to a 3rd grader or mentored a teen, has also reflected on the barriers faced by the children and youth they are helping, barriers beyond what is possible to impact by doing those things alone.
What circumstances led to the 3rd grader not reading at their grade level? It may have had to do with their family’s inability to access Early On services for a developmental delay that was then not caught or treated until the child was in kindergarten. It may be that their family’s literacy levels are not adequate to help their children excel, and with limited language spoken or read to the 3rd grader as a young child, they began school behind. It may have had to do with their family’s inability to access quality afterschool and summer learning programs, leaving the 3rd grader either home by themselves or without educational supports outside the school day.
What circumstances led to the youth needing mentoring? It may be because the young person is in the foster care system, and has yet to find a home that lasts for more than a few months. It may be that the young person’s parents had untreated mental health or substance abuse issues that resulted in the removal of the child from their family in the first place, and preclude their return. It may have been that the adverse experiences (or ACEs) that the young person had in their earlier years exhibited in behaviors that proved difficult to teachers, social workers and foster parents, resulting school suspension or expulsion or multiple placements in care.
The volunteer actions taken in both of these situations are powerful for individual children and youth, improving their skills and giving them someone to count on and offer guidance toward success. But, both of these stories lead us to wonder about the many others in similar circumstances. What might be done to improve the odds for all children youth in these situations? What might be done to prevent the 3rd grader from getting behind in school? What might be done to prevent the family from losing custody of their child?
In both of these examples, there are evidenced investments that could have helped these two young people and many more like them. In Michigan, often, there are great programs and initiatives that used to be funded, but aren’t any more; or that are funded for some, but aren’t available to every family around the state. Elected officials at the state and federal level can change that situation.
Right now, discussions are taking place determining how we are investing our state and federal tax dollars. Now is the time to invest a little more of our volunteer time to share what we know with the people having those discussions. We are willing to take the time to volunteer our time to make individual life outcomes better. Policymakers need to know that we are also willing to volunteer our time to let them know how to improve life outcomes for more children, youth and families in our communities.
Read more about Michigan’s Children’s budget advocacy, and commit some volunteer time this week to take action.
– Michele Corey