Creating a Safe Passage: Elder Mentors and Vulnerable Youth

By Taylor, Andrea S.; Dryfoos, Joy G. | Generations, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Creating a Safe Passage: Elder Mentors and Vulnerable Youth


Taylor, Andrea S., Dryfoos, Joy G., Generations


An ever-increasing number of children in the United States are growing up with little hope of enjoying the benefits that come with adulthood. They are not learning the skills necessary to participate in the educational system or to make the transition into the labor force. They often cannot become responsible parents because they have limited experience in family life and lack the resources to raise their own children. This new class of vulnerable youth-- emerging in our inner cities, on the fringes of suburbia, and in rural areas-is functionally illiterate, disconnected from school, and prone to drug abuse, depression, and early criminal activity. These are the children who are at high risk of becoming parents of unplanned and unwanted babies and of failing to become responsible adults (Dryfoos, 1998; Ginzberg, Berliner, and Ostow, 1988).

This article describes the current situation for vulnerable youth and then discusses an example of a successful intergenerational program, Across Ages, that improves their chances of overcoming barriers.

THE CURRENT STATUS OF YOUTH

Currently, almost 30 million young people in the United States are between the ages of Io and 17 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1996). In 1995, about two-thirds of teens were white and non-Hispanic and one third nonwhite or Hispanic. By the year 2010, it is expected that 40 percent of all youth will be nonwhite or Hispanic, with the highest growth for Hispanic and Asian youth.

Youth now live in many different family configurations. Today, half of all marriages end in divorce, and more than half of all children will spend time in a single-parent family (Zill and Nord, 1994), typically with the mother. Poverty and lack of healthcare have negative effects on millions of adolescents, especially those living only with their mothers and those in minority families. Ninety-five percent of young people aged Io to 17 are currently enrolled in school; about half a million are not (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1994). Young people who drop out of school before age 18 are disproportionately disadvantaged, and increasing percentages are Hispanic.

In truth, young people engaging in sex and drug abuse and other forms of delinquency is not new. What has changed, however, are the intensity, the scale, and the dangerous consequences. For example, according to a national study by the Centers for Disease Control (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1996), one third of youth smoke frequently, more than half drink frequently, and one-fourth use marijuana frequently. In addition, more than 50 percent of all high school students report that they have had sexual intercourse, and a high percentage of sexually active youth are still having unprotected sex, with the accompanying risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.

Twenty percent of high school students carry a weapon, and 12 percent of males carry a gun. Juvenile arrests have almost doubled in the last decade, and the homicide rate for youth aged 14 to 17 is almost two and a halftimes higher than a decade ago, especially among African-American males. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among teenagers (Ozer et al., 1994).

Young people heavily involved in behaviors that have potentially damaging consequences share many common characteristics. These often include early "acting out,' an absence of nurturing parents, evidence of having been a victim of child abuse, disengagement from school, involvement with a negative peer group, depression, residence in disadvantaged neighborhoods, and little exposure to the work world.

RESILIENT YOUTH

Of course, not every child in a dysfunctional family, an inferior school, or a poor community fails to thrive (e.g., Werner and Smith, 1982; Garmazy, 1985). Those youth who do well in spite of such problems often share common characteristics or situations, which have important implications for those seeking to develop programs to support vulnerable youth. …

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