Looking to youth clubs for answers to urban ills

March 18, 1998|By Paul Shelton

HAVING grown up as an African-American in a poor, rural area of Kentucky in the 1950s, I know what it feels like to think success is out of reach.

My single mother, my brother and I first lived in a house with no indoor plumbing. For us, moving to a public housing project was an improvement. But relocating didn't solve one major challenge for my family -- there was little in our environment to help us achieve success.

Yet I am living proof that there is hope, and that our society knows how to create opportunity for all children, poor or not. The recent opening of a Boys & Girls Club at Pleasant View Gardens in East Baltimore is just such an opportunity.

Jim Crow's reach

I broadened my horizons and learned to dream at a local youth club similar to this one. That was an important outlet for me at a time when Jim Crow laws kept me out of many public places.

I was a junior in high school before Kentucky law allowed someone of my race to visit a local library or attend many movie theaters. But at the club for disadvantaged youths, I joined a book club, saw movies and went to the circus. I traveled to Canada for seminary studies at a time when most seminaries didn't accept African-Americans.

The club exposed me to new ideas and opportunities. Through the club, I felt a strong sense of pride, belonging, responsibility, accomplishment and purpose.

The signs of hope and failure among Baltimore's youths are everywhere. Statistics on reading and math performance, school dropout rates, teen pregnancy and juvenile crime are all at unacceptable levels. There is plenty of blame to go around, but rather than pointing fingers, let's address the problems.

Through a partnership with the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Boys & Girls Clubs' national and state offices, the new youth development center at Pleasant View Gardens is a place to start changing young lives. It serves nearby East Baltimore neighborhoods and area public housing communities, including Douglass and Somerset homes and Latrobe Gardens. Clubs already operate in Flag House Courts and Claremont Homes.

Across the country, Boys & Girls Clubs are helping 2.6 million youths. And they're doing it well.

According to a Louis Harris poll, 87 percent of club alumni graduate from high school, compared with 66 percent of youths nationally. Twenty-five percent of alumni graduate from college, compared with 16 percent of all youths.

A Columbia University study of New York public housing projects reported that those with Boys & Girls Clubs had 52 percent fewer missed days of school.

The clubs feature programs designed to prevent teen pregnancy, drug use and violent attacks. Youths enrolled explore arts and culture and receive help with homework and physical fitness instruction.

Also, they receive moral and ethical direction and help in making decisions that will improve themselves and their community.

There are 4 million living Boys & Girls Club alumni, including some celebrated ones, such as movie actor Denzel Washington, former congressman and NFL player Jack Kemp and Baltimore Oriole Eric Davis. More important, there are millions of not-so-familiar stories of personal success.

Despite the wringing of hands and the bewildering statistics, we know how to turn urban communities around. Let's continue to invest in success.

Paul Shelton is president of the board of directors of Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Maryland and a partner at the law firm of Piper & Marbury.

Pub Date: 3/18/98

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