Why do some kids defy all the odds? Despite extreme hardship, they are motivated to work hard in the classroom, on the athletic field, or at part-time jobs. But other kids who have similar burdens just get overwhelmed and give up. The difference in most cases, I’ve learned, is there was at least one caring adult helping along the way, acting as a buffer against life’s hardships – an astounding yet simple fact to take to heart.
County government plays an instrumental role in shaping outcomes for kids, so when I became president of the N.C. Association of County Commissioners last August, I called on all my fellow commissioners to help me discover new ways to create a supportive environment, and to nurture resilience in our youth.
As part of the initiative, I hosted the “100 Counties: Helping Our Children Thrive” Summit in Guilford County this spring. The purpose was to create a forum for counties to share best practices and implement new and innovative ways to support children.The summit also featured youth speakers. The wisdom they shared ought to serve as a reflection point for all of us who are in the business of making kids’ lives better.
Terrence Smith, of Scotland County, discussed his experience as a member of the Growing Change Youth Leadership Team, which seeks to empower youth connected to the juvenile justice system to lead community development projects. He helped establish an innovative “prison flip” initiative to convert an abandoned state prison into a community garden to provide healthy produce for needy families.
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Mr. Smith described how his involvement in the project and the mentoring he received from organization founder Noran Sanford allowed him to reimagine who he could become. He said the program helped him begin to see his future in new ways, and envision a path that he never dreamed could be possible.
Mr. Smith’s sincerity was palpable as he described his evolving relationship with the community. He explained how negative influences in a kid’s environment often mask their true essence, obscure their potential and make them unrecognizable in many ways. He said it’s like placing a rose inside a jar of onions. The mentoring support Mr. Smith received and the leadership skills he acquired through Growing Change led to a profound transformation, giving him newfound hope, motivation, and a connection to his community.
We also heard from Terrell “Tae” Brown, a first-generation college student. He grew up without a father in a neighborhood where drug addiction was prevalent. His mother worked multiple jobs to keep the family afloat.
With support from the Boys & Girls Club in Henderson County and other mentors in the community, he developed leadership skills and confidence, and achieved academic success. In 2013, he was recognized as Henderson County Youth of the Year and went on to pursue a college education at UNC-Chapel Hill. He will graduate in May and plans to continue his studies toward a doctorate degree in education.
Mr. Brown attributes his success to the community support he received and stresses the point that resilience is a learned skill that can be taught and nurtured. He explained how caring adults are key to developing youth resilience and act as a powerful buffer to protect against the harmful effects of adverse childhood experiences.
Since the summit, I have reflected on everything we learned. I noticed there was a common theme that kept coming up. Behind every success story, you find caring adults, who use their unique talents to make children feel supported.
Each member of the community can help create a supportive environment wherever kids go – whether it be at home, in schools, churches, civic organizations, or other community organizations. Anyone can be that special, caring adult in a child’s life, buffering them from life’s stressors and helping them reimagine their future.
Brenda Howerton is a Durham County commissioner and president of the N.C. Association of County Commissioners.