We work in a country where the dominant narrative among nonprofit organizations is about brokenness, suffering, and scarcity of resources. So, there would be an understandable impulse for an organization like ours see the teens with whom we work as “at-risk,” as people whose lives need to be “fixed,” or as individuals in need of “rescue”. It’s an impulse Reading Village not only resists, but turns on its head.
Strength-based youth development begins with the assumption that young people have a unique point of view, an important contribution to make, and unlimited energy. Working with a young person through the lens of strength means that we embrace who she is today and help her grow from there. We don’t deny the risk factors but we fan the flames of her personal gifts and potential in ways that weaken the likelihood and impact of risk factors.
Let’s take the example of one of our Youth Leaders we’ll call Angelica. As we get to know this 16-year old, we hear her express concerns about keeping up with her mathematics class and complaints about her stepfather who is less-than supportive of her studies.
We also make it our business to learn that Angelica laughs easily. She is very artistic and resourceful – in her spare time she makes bracelets which she sells to her school mates and tourists. She is also extremely resilient and has a strong sense of purpose — to become a nurse so that she can help others who suffer from the kind of illness that took her biological father from her when she was just 8 years old. These are what we refer to as Angelica’s “internal assets” – personal qualities our staff will consciously affirm, support and help her build upon.
The deeper we dig, the more we learn. Over the course of her participation in our program, we learn that Angelica has several “external assets,” including involvement with her church youth group, a mother and aunt who encourage her studies, and an art teacher at her school who appreciates her creativity. Our program adds to these external assets by providing Angelica with an adult mentor, a supportive team of youth leaders, and new status among adult community members who see that she is making different by reading to their children.
Search Institute’s has coined the term “youth-at-promise” to describe kids just like Angelica. Their research shows that these kinds of internal and external strengths significantly increase the likelihood that a teen like Angelica will complete her education and become an adult who is healthy, happy, and a contributing member of her community. Every facet of our program is designed to make that end a reality. From the mentors we train, to the leadership curriculum we’ve refined, to the network of alumni we’ve built, we’re deeply committed to helping Angelica and every other youth leader fulfill his her promise and reach his or her true potential.
By: Larry Dressler, Founding Board Member of Reading Village