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Children's Voice Article

Providing Options and Opportunities for Youth

by Carrie McVicker Seth and Maria Garin Jones

Self Enhancement Inc.
Young people represent a valuable, untapped resource in our society. They have the ability and desire to make significant contributions to their families, schools, and communities. Unfortunately, for many youth whose lives are marginalized by poverty, violence, and social injustice, the future is bleak and uncertain. Yet, despite tremendous adversity, the strength and potential of these youth emerges in unique and powerful ways.

A common strategy for working with at-risk youth is to involve them in a variety of traditional prevention-oriented programs--pregnancy prevention, violence prevention, substance abuse prevention, and so on. Such programs tend to focus on identifying deficits in these youth and designing solutions to remedy the problems.

Obviously, the goal is to help young people become competent and caring citizens, neighbors, and parents. But although many prevention programs have demonstrated success achieving specific targeted outcomes, some experts question whether a deficit-based approach might actually prevent the vision from becoming a reality.

Are there are other innovative ways to support young people on their journey to a positive, productive adulthood?

Research has shown that young people involved with youth development programs, providing youth with structured activities and opportunities for involvement and building relationships, are less likely to become pregnant and use alcohol, tobacco, or drugs, and more likely to become civically engaged and academically successful.2

For all young people, including those who live in communities struggling with violence and poverty, youth development isn't an activity or an event, but rather a process in which youth engage over time. Embracing a philosophy of positive youth development ensures that work--and, more importantly, relationships--with youth reflect this core belief.

A Haven from the Streets

Founded in 1981 as a basketball camp for boys, Self Enhancement Inc. (SEI) in Portland, Oregon, today serves inner-city boys and girls and their families. Through support and mentorship, SEI strives to eliminate gang membership, alcohol and drug use, and violence among young people in the Portland area.

SEI works with schools, families, and community organizations to provide youth choices and positive options that fit their needs, helping realize their full potential. SEI's philosophy is that creating successful bonds between youth and school reduces participation in drug use, criminal activity, and other delinquent behavior. The goal is to increase the number of inner-city youth who stay in school and help them become responsible, productive citizens who contribute to a stronger, safer, more self-sufficient North and Northeast Portland.

The youth who participate in the program are from an area of Portland with the lowest educational achievement, fewest two-parent households, and highest rates of unemployment, poverty, and violent crime in the state. Reaching out to students in the community, SEI provides case management and support services to bolster their chances for success.

Because providing options and opportunities to its students is a cornerstone to SEI's approach and crucial to its success, students participate in a structured afterschool program that allows time for daily homework, provides academic enrichment and tutoring, and offers exposure to a variety of performing arts and recreational opportunities. With school budget cuts eliminating afterschool enrichment programs, organizations like SEI have become more important in providing youth with positive alternatives.

SEI serves some 1,700 youth, ages 8 - 25, and their families annually. More than half of SEI participants come from single-family homes and live below the poverty line. About 85% of participating students are African American, 6% are Hispanic, 4% are white, 1% is Asian American, and less than 1% is Native American.

Unlike programs that serve children and youth for a limited period, SEI works with them continuously, year after year, from grade 2 through grade 12. SEI helps them transition from one grade to the next, exposes them to college and career options, and provides summer, afterschool, and weekend programming.

Sadiki Stone, a senior at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, has been actively involved in SEI since second grade. He grew up with his mother and siblings but felt the need for other strong role models in his life. SEI was a safe refuge from the streets, providing him with positive alternatives for his afterschool hours.

Most memorable for him was the support he received through high school. His strongest advocate was his SEI service coordinator, who mentored him through college applications and preparation for the SAT. SEI also arranged an opportunity for him to intern with the Portland Trailblazers basketball team, working in their community affairs department.

Secrets of Success

SEI Founder and President Tony Hopson makes clear the level of commitment he expects from every member of his staff. Staff not only work in the community, they live in the community. They are 24-hour, 7-day-a-week employees, Hopson says, who "live, breathe, and eat SEI" and are dedicated to helping young people achieve their dreams.

Youth Services Director Marcy Bradley, who started with SEI as a service coordinator for high school students, says the program's effectiveness is why she has stayed with the organization for almost 10 years. She credits the staff and their relationships with the young people in the program with enabling SEI to compete with the lure of the street and consistently attract children and keep them coming back. The kids respond to the support they receive from SEI staff.

Bradley also cites students' Individual Success Plans as a key to their success. Young people work with SEI staff to develop their Individual Success Plans, forcing them to think about their future and set accessible goals. The kids and SEI staff constantly review these goals to determine which ones have been met, whether unmet goals are realistic, and whether new ones should be set.

All SEI participants must memorize and adhere to the SEI Standards, which provide a framework for interacting with others and monitoring their own behavior. Based on integrity, honesty, modesty, courtesy, honor, and reverence, the Standards emphasize
  • strengthening relationships by greeting each other with a smile and a handshake,
  • honor and respect for each other through proper language and speech,
  • respect for others' personal space,
  • adherence to honesty and truthfulness,
  • respect for their own culture and those of others, and
  • valuing their own beauty through inward understanding and outward appearance.
SEI staff also credit as central to its success SEI's family-like atmosphere, partnerships with the public schools, and of course opportunities that keep youth engaged and involved.

Almost 10 years ago, Norma Godfrey and her husband unexpectedly found themselves in the position of parents again. After their eldest daughter passed away, they became the legal guardians for their three grandchildren, ages 4, 5, and 12. Norma's cousin, who works at SEI, suggested that the children as well as Norma become involved in SEI.

Godfrey says SEI was very supportive during her family's difficult transition. SEI introduced the children to programs that helped fill a void in their lives. Today, the younger children, now in adolescence, are still involved with SEI, receiving homework help and using the facility as a safe haven for social interaction with peers.

Tried and Tested

SEI has undergone several evaluations throughout its 23-year history. Currently, SEI is tracking participating students' school attendance rates, behavior, and grade point averages (GPA).

In 2002 - 2003, 100% of the 21 SEI seniors enrolled at Portland's Jefferson High School graduated--this from a school with a graduation rate below 50%. Of 47 SEI seniors enrolled at Jefferson and three other local high schools, 99% graduated, 87% had no referrals for inappropriate behavior, 85% attended school 80% of the time, and 38% maintained a GPA of 3.0 or above--a remarkable achievement in a school district with a 1-in-3 graduation rate.

In 1992, the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory conducted a longitudinal study of SEI program success with both qualitative and quantitative findings. At that time, SEI was serving approximately 300 youth annually and providing services designed to improve academic success, behavior, and attitude.

The survey found that SEI youth had positive self-esteem and a healthy outlook on life and appeared to have low rates of alcohol and drug usage. Overall, the research showed that SEI students had better school attendance and academic success than a comparison group of similar children not enrolled in SEI. All SEI youth showed significantly better outcomes in math scores and overall GPAs as well.

RMC Research conducted a second evaluation of SEI in 1994. This evaluation included 103 SEI students and a comparison group of 175 students not participating in the program. Over the three-year study, physical fighting declined significantly in the SEI group, compared with no change in the control group.

Success to Be Proud Of

Of his program, Hopson says with pride, "Our position as a leader among youth-serving programs is a testament to the fact that the model we have developed to get kids to reach their fullest potential is one of the best in America."

There is no one formula for working with young people, but adults involved in youth work have a responsibility to identify, strengthen, and focus on the talents and abilities all young people possess. Positive youth development is a practical approach to ensure all young people, regardless of their situations, have access to the opportunities and supports they need to develop into competent, caring, and responsible citizens and community members.

With a spin-off program, cofounded by NBA All-Star Alonzo Mourning, in its second year in Miami (see the sidebars on page 16 and below), the SEI model is emerging as a success story--and a leader--on two coasts.

Carrie McVicker Seth is a former Research Analyst for CWLA's Research to Practice Initiative. Maria Garin Jones is Director of Youth Services for CWLA. For more information on SEI, visit SEI's website at www.selfenhancement.org.
  1. Each program highlighted by the Research to Practice Initiative (R2P) is supported by research. For more information on the levels of research, visit the R2P website at www.cwla.org/programs/r2p, or e-mail R2P at R2P@cwla.org.
  2. Moore, Kristen A., & Zaff, Jonathan F. (2002). Building a Better Teenager: A Summary of "What Works" in Adolescent Development. (Child Trends Research Brief, Publication 2002-57). Available online. Washington, DC: Child Trends.

Replication a Coast Away

When they opened the Overtown Youth Center (OYC) in 2003 in one of Miami's poorest neighborhoods, real estate developer Marty Margulies and NBA All-Star Alonzo Mourning (see Mourning's profile below) modeled their program after SEI.

A state-of-the-art educational and athletic facility, OYC offers in-school, afterschool, and summer programming for more than 250 Overtown students in grades two through eight, adding a grade each year until the program includes students through grade 12. Like its model, OYC strives to facilitate growth and improvement in youth by teaching educational and character-building skills, offering health initiatives, and providing youth positive alternatives for their life choices.

OYC has developed a set of standards, based on the SEI Standards, for students to live by both at the center and in their lives. The standards focus on promoting integrity, respect, and honesty and instilling pride and discipline in the students.

OK FINE, a partnership between OYC and Miami Children's Hospital, teaches youth about fitness and nutrition and alternatives to candy and other sugary snacks. OYC demonstrates to children that by avoiding these foods they can remain healthy and alert and perform better in school. Children identified as overweight or at-risk for obesity are assessed by a health care worker and enrolled in the program.

Now in its second year, OYC is collecting baseline data and measuring outcomes to track program success. SEI is dedicated to the success of OYC as its first official replication. For more information, visit OYC's website at www.overtownyouth.org.

Alonzo Mourning

Sports fans know Alonzo Mourning as a six-time NBA All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year, former center for the Miami Heat, and a gold medallist at the 2000 Olympics.

But "Zo" is also recognized widely as one of the most generous, giving athletes in the country. Most of his philanthropic efforts benefit vulnerable children. Mourning's Summer Groove weekend of fundraising activities, including a golf tournament, concert, gala dinner, and basketball game, raises significant funds for his foundation, the Alonzo Mourning Charities, primarily benefiting the Children's Home Society, 100 Black Men of South Florida, and the Overtown Youth Center (see "Replication a Coast Away," page 16).

In 2000, fans were saddened to learn Mourning had been diagnosed with a rare, incurable kidney disease--glomerulosclerosis. Most players would have retired, but Mourning fought back, battling his disease so he could continue playing basketball. On and off the court for the Miami Heat for three years, he signed a contract with the New Jersey Nets in 2003. But after 13 games with the Nets, Mourning's doctors advised him it was medically unsafe for him to continue playing ball.

Mourning retired from the game in November 2003 and underwent a kidney transplant the following month. Today, he is recovering thanks to a positive attitude, a strong spirit, and a loving family. His decision to stop playing basketball was a celebration of his successes rather than a submission to his limitations.

At 34, the Chesapeake, Virginia, native is a pro at overcoming adversity, both on and off the court. When he was 10, his parents went through a bitter divorce, and a family court judge gave him the difficult decision of living with his mother or his father. Confused, terrified, and desperate for a fresh start, Mourning shocked everyone by choosing to live in foster care.

"I wasn't mad at them," Alonzo says on the Foster Club website," but I wasn't comfortable at home."

After living in several foster homes and residential facilities, Mourning found himself living with the Threets--a local family who ultimately raised 50 foster children in addition to the two born to them. During his eight years in the Threets' home, nine other kids also lived with them. Fannie Threet took a personal interest in each of her children, however, and her positive energy and nurturing spirit struck a chord in the young Alonzo.

A former teacher, Threet kept Alonzo focused on his schoolwork while allowing him to explore his passion for basketball. When she realized how serious he was about the sport, she arranged for him to attend a summer basketball camp. In his freshman year of high school, Mourning was invited to attend one of the best camps in the country. By his junior year, Sports Illustrated named him the best 11th-grade player in the country.

Mourning's hard work paid off when he was accepted to Georgetown University. Under the guidance of Hall-of-Fame coach John Thompson, Mourning quickly became the Hoya's star player--and Fannie Threet continued to cheer him on from the sidelines.

She remains one of his biggest role models, and Mourning credits her for his passion for helping children facing significant challenges--whether it be placement in foster care, too few opportunities for positive activities in their neighborhoods, or the lack of an adult role model. She taught him that every child deserves love, attention, respect, and a chance to succeed. She also taught him the importance of giving.

"There are a lot of young people out there who, if given the chance, will have productive, successful lives," Mourning says. "You can have an impact not just through dollars, but by also giving love and comfort to kids. Each one of us can name the people who had an impact in our lives. I know a little love and attention went a long way with me. I am trying to set an example and motivate other people to help the less fortunate, especially the young ones."

--Elana Viner, Program Coordinator, CWLA


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