Happy Thanksgiving!

Today is the big day! I wish you all the happiness, food and family and friends  you can imagine. I hope, on this day when we are thankful for so much, you will indulge me a bit as I ask you to think also about those that are doing without.

Simply, look into your communities, I can give you examples in the community I live and work in, and then look into your hearts.

Most people that know me know that I work at United Way for Southeastern Michigan where our call to action is to “Give, Advocate, Volunteer.” What most people don’t understand about the United Way is that, after years of analysis, community interviews and research, we have focused our work to align on three critically important issues – education, family (financial) stability and basic needs like food and shelter.

There are many critical issues facing Detroit, but United Way believes, and truly, I believe that these three are at the core of the many ills facing our city right now.  If you look around you where you live, you’ll probably agree that it’s the same in many communities.

When looking at what is most critical in the education arena, we focus on Early Childhood Education (children from 0 – 5 years of age) and High School graduation rates. I’m particularly proud of our work in the High Schools! We work in 16 schools through Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties – many in the city proper – through the gracious support of the GM Foundation and the Skillman Foundation, among others.

In just four years the graduation rate in these schools, which once hovered around 40% is now upwards of 80% and in a few of the schools, it at 100%!  Isn’t that amazing, and wonderful?  Five hundred students graduated this last June that, statistically four years ago, would have dropped out.  And although five hundred doesn’t sound like a lot consider that each high school graduate represents the equivalent of $127,000 saved in extra tax revenues, reduced costs on public health and crime, and decreased welfare payments.  Do the math… that’s $63.5 million saved in just four years!  It truly boggles the mind!

The one thing that made the biggest difference in the schools was such a simple solution – we deliberately worked to create a family atmosphere by breaking large schools into small schools and assigning one teacher to one class for all four years. Teachers and Principals really got to know the students and understand the challenges they were facing at home, and on the streets. In too many instances, it was the first time anyone had cared about the student. School became much more than “just school” – it was a window into a different way of life where there was a possibility that they could work hard, be successful, and go one to, one day, create a better life for their future children. A literacy-rich life, healthy and living above the poverty line.  I was delighted to be a part of the celebration this past June for the  young men and young women that graduated through our programs.  I was so proud, I could have crowed!  They’re genuinely special people, with the right path ahead of them now.

Please take a few minutes to watch this video and see, first-hand, what that “simple” change looked like. It was profound! Much Love: The story of the Detroit school turnaround

Now I know that just because I mentioned the words “United Way” you are expecting me to drop the bomb any minute and ask for a donation and I’m not going to lie, “Give” is part of our call to action for a reason… this work is costly. But, relax… I’m not going to ask you for money. I just ask that today, while you and others all over the country are indulging in your well-deserved turduken, six desserts, gravy, sweet potatoes with marshmallows and White Castle stuffing, take a moment to consider the contrast of what life is like for so many of the students in those high schools today.

·         In the city of Detroit,over 57% of children,  about 233,250, live in poverty.

·         By comparison, 1billion of the world’s 2.2 billion children live in poverty.

·         Statistically, children in Detroit live at a higher level of poverty than the world’s poverty rate.

Isn’t that stunning?  In the United States of America there is a population of children that is living below the statistical worldwide poverty level! It’s nothing short of a travesty.

So, what do these numbers have to do with everything else I just wrote about?  Children, and by extension their families, who are in poverty, generally, don’t eat well – or at all (1 in 6 of don’t know where our next meal is coming from). And it is scientifically proven that a lack of nutrition alters your ability to learn. So undernourished children statistically, under-perform in school.  Think about it this way, when you’re in a meeting, and you’re hungry, aren’t you distracted, and have trouble concentrating on the meeting?  Imagine a child who has that feeling chronically?

Lack of proper nutrition = lack of learning = learning disabilities = High School drop outs = increased poverty, increased crime, increased substance abuse, increased strain on the welfare system. Not always, but more often than not.

The most frustrating part of all of this is that it is easily solved!

So, in this season of so much giving and gratitude, please take a moment to funnel some of that energy back into your community and the greater good. Raise your hand and volunteer. Raise your voice and advocate for hungry kids (psst… the majority of food stamp recipients are children – so it is important that we don’t cut them because it only perpetuates a vicious circle!). And, if you are so inclined, raise your pocketbook and give to an institution like United Way that spends day in and day out doing everything they can to solve these issues.

Remember that every great societal change has started with small, incremental changes.

Happy Thanksgiving!