Putting communities to work for at-risk kids

Bill Milliken has spent four decades working with at-risk kids, and he says those years have taught him a powerful fact that too few recognize.

"We don't have a youth problem in this country," he asserts. "We have an adult problem."

Mr. Milliken is the president and founder of Communities in Schools (CIS), a nonprofit networking organization that connects students at risk of getting into trouble or dropping out with community resources. CIS currently operates in more than 1,500 schools in 32 states, and provides services to about 1 million students and their families each year, drawing on a vast network of charitable and corporate partnerships.

The idea is to create a caring environment for children by bringing community resources into public schools. And while financial resources are important as well, Milliken believes personal relationships between children and adults are key to lifting children to success.

Milliken has worked with three United States presidents, served on the board of retired Gen. Colin Powell's America's Promise foundation, and been awarded the National Caring Award as one of the "10 most caring people in America."

But the road that brought him to prominence as an advocate for young people was not paved with great successes, either as a student or in a traditional career. "I basically gave up on school in the fifth grade," he says.

Milliken has dedicated his life to working with troubled kids because he remembers only too well what it was like to be one - and how simple yet powerful the human connection was that turned his own life around.

He grew up in an affluent Pittsburgh suburb, but struggled both academically and with a sense of emotional emptiness. By the time he was 17, he had largely dropped out of the world he'd grown up in and was spending much of his time in a pool hall.

It was there he met a young man working as a youth missionary for a religious group called Young Life. Although Milliken says initially he resented the efforts of the group to introduce him to Christian ideas (which he eventually accepted), he was touched from the outset by the sense that someone cared about him.

"I think I had a little taste of unconditional love," he reflects. "That's why I put so much emphasis on healthy relationships between adults and children. There's always the one person who gets to you." Milliken says he felt transformed and determined to spend his life helping kids who might be struggling emotionally as he had been.

He enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh, but quickly became restless. He departed for New York City, where he spent the next 11 years working with children. Milliken first focused on finding shelter for runaways, but then created a series of "storefront academies" for kids who had dropped out of school but wished to return and earn a degree.

He discovered a talent for getting people and corporations with deep pockets interested in his projects. IBM, AT&T, and Union Carbide were among the sponsors of 18 schools he opened. Milliken also began to formulate his ideas about the essential needs young people have.

"People keep looking for some magic formula, but really it's so simple," he says. "Just go inside yourself. What do you want? Give that to your neighbor."

Today CIS articulates four basic needs for children: A one-on-one relationship with a caring adult, a safe place to learn and grow, a marketable skill to use upon graduation, and a chance to give back to peers and community.

As a younger man, Milliken found himself angry with the racism and injustice he felt was endemic to the US. "I felt that we had institutionalized poverty. We were wasting billions of dollars and lives. I thought it was a conspiracy, but I finally realized it was just ineptness."

Milliken dreamed of creating "small, caring holistic units" for young people, "an environment where everyone's gift is accepted." He began to see that working in schools could be an ideal way to bring that to large numbers of kids with needs.

Today CIS sends coordinators into the schools it works with to help identify at-risk students. CIS then draws on whatever resources are available - usually partnerships - to help those children. For instance, if a student needs a mentor, CIS may work with a national group like Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America, or it may recruit and train its own network of local volunteers.

CIS also works with numerous corporate partners. In Georgia, for instance, Cisco Systems has worked with CIS to create more than 30 Cisco Networking Academies to teach children technical career skills.

At Meacham Middle School in Fort Worth, Texas, assistant principal Jeanette Cocharo says her school simply supplies an office and a phone to two CIS coordinators who work there. In return, the workers provide counseling, tutoring, and after-school activities. Their presence has improved academic performance for a number of students, Ms. Cocharo says.

Milliken says his drive to help youths has exceeded expectations. But what encourages him most is his perception that the public cares more about youth problems now than earlier in his career. "The wall of denial is down," he says. "We're starting to realize we need each other."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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