Making a Difference in the Lives of Youth

We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future
--Franklin D. Roosevelt

The rate of murder among those fourteen to seventeen years of age has more than doubled since 1986. Nationally, on average, six teens die violently each day. During the past six years, there has been a significant increase in juvenile crime in the most serious categories: murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. Recent National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) research indicates that drug use among teens is rising. How do we respond to these frightening statistics? What are we doing to protect our youth?

I can remember looking out my bedroom window as a child and dreaming about how my own child would look, how he would act, and what kind of man he would be. I have had this recurring daydream since age twelve. I now know how handsome, energetic, intelligent, kind, and caring my son, Todd, is at age eleven; however, I still think about what kind of man he will become. As a leisure scholar who explores the complex nature of young people who are at risk of economic hardship, drug and alcohol abuse, violence, and parental and educational neglect, and as a single parent, I am aware of the multitude of environmental factors that will compete to shape my child's character, morals, and values.

As a former youth at risk, I know firsthand what it is like to live in an environment that cheats children out of their right to become positive, hard working contributors in our society. Raised in north Philadelphia, I was exposed to the worst kinds of conditions imaginable, conditions that robbed children of their innocence, leaving them to behave immorally later in life. Between the ages of ten and seventeen, I was shot at, was beaten by a gang of girls, escaped two attempted rapes, and was subjected to harsh treatment and pressure from my peers to do drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes. I watched many of my friends sell drugs in the community and school; most of them landed in juvenile facilities before entering the tenth grade. I also recall that a large number of the girls in my eighth grade class dropped out of school to raise their babies. Despite the trauma of these experiences, perhaps the most disturbing of all was watching my mother raise myself and six siblings, alone, under such devastating conditions.

My mother did the best she could to raise all of us to be honest, hard-working adults. Although I recognize and appreciate the value of the good example she set, ultimately it was participation in a variety of recreational activities that played the most significant role in shaping my character. I was sent to day camp each summer, participated in after-school sports, and frequented the neighborhood recreation center; I was active, stayed off the streets, and was surrounded by positive role models. In retrospect, recreation intervened when my mother was too busy working and taking care of seven children. Through participation in recreational activities, I gained a positive sense of self. I discovered what I was capable of accomplishing, as well as my limitations. Physical and mental challenges that recreation leaders exposed me to helped me to believe that I could do anything my mind and body would allow. I attribute my academic success and fit-for-life attitude to the many years and variety of recreational opportunities of which I took advantage.

As this issue of Research & Creative Activity illustrates, there are numerous interventions, recreational and otherwise, that can make a positive difference in the lives of our youth. Researchers, educators, and community service providers design and implement programs and services for youth ranging from tennis lessons to techniques to handle bullies. Prescribing the right blend of opportunities and administering that prescription at the right time in a child's life can prevent youth from becoming at risk. In March 1996, the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention in Washington, D.C., sponsored a conference that brought together leisure and prevention professionals to explore prevention and intervention strategies targeting youth who live in high-risk environments. With the attitude that all hope is not lost unless it is lost in the minds of those who are in a position to make a difference, we worked together to develop strategies to reduce and prevent alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs (ATOD) abuse among youth who are at risk.

We brainstormed, discussed, discovered, and developed action plans that have the potential to significantly affect our communities. We learned about each others' program development approaches, community resources, and methods for service delivery. We discovered ways in which to bridge differences between the two fields and how to use their commonalities to work together on collaborative activities. Before leaving the conference, participants were charged with prescribing collaborative prevention or intervention strategies to positively affect youth. Although these strategies were unique in their methodological approach, they all focused on collaboration between leisure scholars and prevention professionals to reduce or eliminate ATOD abuse among youth.

That conference renewed my commitment to researching and teaching my students about the complex nature of youth who are at risk. It also reminded me that, as a former at-risk youth, I was one of the lucky ones! I had options and somehow was smart enough to make the right choices. Although Todd is not being raised in a high-risk environment, part of my preventive and interventive strategy is to expose him to what these environments are like, as well to prescribe the best blend of experiences that will have a positive effect. I purposely prescribe different recreational activities to enhance his self-esteem, confidence, and artistic capabilities. He attends both day camp and residential camp each summer. He has been involved in art classes, basketball, gymnastics, swimming, karate, and soccer. Furthermore, Todd and I do things together as a family on a regular basis. We may go to a movie, dine at a nice restaurant, attend a play at the IU auditorium, play video games, walk our dog at the local park, or simply read together.

Todd's recreational and educational activities are purposely designed. It is my duty to ensure that he becomes a positive, hard-working contributor in our society. At the age of eleven, Todd speaks of attending college and perhaps going on to get a master's degree. He wants to be an artist, producer, director, and actor. There is no doubt in his mind or mine that he will become all four. The intervention strategies that I am using, and the many that follow in these pages, are what we need if we are to make a difference in the lives of our youth.

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