See young people as problem solvers

Published October 26, 2005

When first lady Laura Bush leads the first White House Conference on Helping America's Youth in one day, I hope she recognizes the importance of people like Mrs. Lippman, a teacher and mentor who helped turn my life around at a time when I had given up hope.

Growing up in Largo, I had plenty to overcome. My mother divorced when I was 2, and at the age of 5, I remember my grandma trying to explain with tears and trembling hands that my mother had been killed in an airplane crash.

My father had a good heart but battled alcoholism. My sisters and I grew up with screaming adults, neglect and police visits as part of our routine. It's no surprise that I lost hope in the future.

When I was 15, some other adults began to play important roles in my life. Bruce Calhoun, the cross-country coach at Seminole High School, taught me the value of battling through adversity to reach a goal. About that time, Lynda Lippman, an English teacher, also took notice of me, the quiet kid in the back who liked to write. She encouraged me to get involved with a group of teens determined to create a teen center. It would be run by and for young people.

Thanks to caring adult mentors like Mrs. Lippman, the entire process of building the teen center embraced the philosophy of youth empowerment. The adults took a risk but gave us the chance to accomplish something.

We did. We did everything from writing our first grant for $195,000 to hiring staff members and planning weekly service activities such as feeding the homeless and visiting a nursing home. Working with the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Suncoast, I learned confidence, compassion and hope. As the teenagers became more involved, they acquired a sense of ownership in the center. Once they have that sense of ownership, youth will guard and take pride in a community they helped build. It's a model that works.

Kids get incredible payoffs from being empowered in their communities, not marginalized or, worse, sent off to restrictive programs away from anyone who really cares about them. It is vitally important for our kids, for our communities and for the future of our country that we make intentional steps to recognize young people as problem solvers, not problems. Having young people at the table will help to ensure that we set the right policies and priorities. First and foremost, they will tell you that what they need are adults who care about them.

They will also ask for a safe place to live, health care, a good education and a roadmap for moving into adulthood, whether it's through college or another avenue. Families, mentors and communities must pitch in to help young people succeed. But government must step in as well to ensure meaningful programs for youth. Prevention costs far less than punishment.

Early in my life, many probably predicted that I was destined to become a problem. But I have come a long way, thanks to the help of several caring adults. Today I am 21 and attend Stetson University on a full scholarship. I am captain of the cross-country team and I spent the summer working for Congress.

I helped raise about $1-million for the Eckerd Family Foundation to start other teen centers. I helped found six youth centers in disadvantaged communities in Florida and another one in an impoverished village in Guatemala. I have traveled to 10 countries and have spoken to more than 9,000 people - young people and adults - about the work we've done.

I can testify to the fact that anything is possible for all young people. I have seen firsthand the tremendous gifts they can offer their community and country when given caring support and opportunities. But, like me, they cannot do it alone. Let us make the investment. Let us change the world, together, one youth at a time.

Matthew Morton is a student at Stetson University in DeLand. He also is vice chairman of the National Council on Youth Policy, and youth advocacy coordinator for the Southeastern Network of Youth and Family Services.