Jonathan Alter for Bloomberg: Worried About America? Visit a Boys & Girls Club

September 22nd, 2011


Alter: Worried About America? Visit a Boys & Girls Club

Sep 22, 2011 8:06 PM ET

The political world is so toxic that I needed some relief, so I tuned into a reality show more real than anything on television. I wasn’t disappointed. The stories I heard were at once harrowing and inspirational. And they were deeply connected to the future of the country.

This week, I served as one of five judges in the Boys & Girls Clubs of America National Youth of the Year competition. This is like the Miss America pageant, except that instead of judging contestants by how they look in a ball gown, we were assessing things like “Moral Character,” “Public Speaking” and “Obstacles Overcome.”

Talk about a man-bites-dog story: The adults in the room — from a senior White House official to an executive with Major League Baseball — stood in awe of 17- and 18-year-olds.

In a better world, the Youth of the Year competition would be on television; there was plenty of suspense over who the winner would be. Of course, stories of young people doing well and serving their communities wouldn’t make for a juicy series. Or would it? “The Situation” in these kids’ lives is a lot more compelling than getting a tan and going to the gym.

4.1 Million Kids

With little notice, the 4,000 Boys & Girls Clubs in impoverished areas of all 50 states have become a vital part of the social safety net. They serve about 4.1 million kids under 18. That’s more than a quarter of the population of so-called at-risk young people, the ones who would end up in jail, on drugs or mired in deep poverty without early intervention.

Once they realize it’s not uncool to show up, boys, in particular, routinely say that the club saved their lives. In most poor rural and urban areas nowadays, the only social anchors are the church, the school and the Boys & Girls Club. It’s hard to find an Indian reservation or housing project that doesn’t have one.

This year’s finalists each beat hundreds of others with a daunting combination of essays and recommendations that only hinted at how impressive they are in person. All the judges were blown away by our one-on-one interviews, and again when the students delivered five-minute memorized speeches. Read More…