This past week I had a disruption in my "normal" work schedule. I have probably mentioned before, but I am fortunate to have been chosen as a policy fellow with the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Every other month, I meet with 14 other advocates across the country to discuss how we can better use child well-being data to drive policy and results. This program will last until February 2016 and each time we will travel to a different city/state where the participants live and work. Luckily for us, one of our classmates lives in PR. So on Monday, I left freezing cold and rainy South Carolina for warm and sunny San Juan, Puerto Rico!
Most of the week was spent in a hotel conference room over looking the ocean. Inspiring but also a little frustrating because here we were working hard and the beach was RIGHT there! But on Wednesday, we got out of our little container on a bus. We ventured about 45 minutes east from San Juan to Loiza to visit the Boys and Girls Club of Loiza. The trip there showed a stark comparison of the fancy tourist areas to the real life, impoverished areas of the island.
At the center we had a tour of the beautiful center and participated in a data walk (child well-being data is printed on large posters on the meeting room walls. Participants walk around the room and discuss their observations and reflections on the data). In terms of child well-being, it’s one of the worst areas in Puerto Rico: 60% of children under the age of 5 live in poverty, the infant mortality rate is 9 per 1,000 births, 63 out of 1,000 children are victims of child maltreatment and almost 47% of children are being raised solely by grandparents. After the data walk, we had the chance to talk with the Executive Director as well as teens at the club. There were three things that struck me:
1. Eduardo, the Executive Director, is passionate and has been instrumental in taking the Boys and Girls club from 30 staff and almost to the point of having to close their doors due to lack of funding to more than 300 staff and 11 clubs across the island. But he said, despite the success they have had with the club and the programs they provide, he has seen things in his community get worse not better. It was his realization that these programs alone are not enough. It takes passionate people willing to come together to advocate for wide spread change that will improve these numbers and the lives of these children. Passion and also a little bit of faith.
2. The similarities in both the data and in talking with teens. I could have easily been sitting in a Boys and Girls club in South Carolina. The personal stories, the challenges, the desire to connect and belong, and the hope for a better future resonant regardless of our geographic location.
3. One of my colleague on the trip said it so well “the kids are alright, it’s everything around them that is not.” Shaqui, one of the 16 year olds we talked to, wanted us to take back and tell others that “they (the teens) are ok. We have friends, we do normal teen things. We like art and we are happy.” They don’t all see (as we see looking in) the poverty that they are born into or the lack of opportunity that may lie ahead of them. It’s our responsibility to tell their improve the systems around them.
It's hard to leave a place like this without my eyes being opened a little wider and forever feeling changed. I'm grateful for the experience and returned to South Carolina a little emotional but with a renewed passion and a full cup. The challenges are tough and the solutions aren't easy. It's up to all of us, as advocates, to find them and make this world, whatever area we find ourselves in, better off by us having been there.