Kids Helped for 10 Years By a Committed Group
Volunteers who believe relationships are the most important of life’s navigational aids are weaving networks of support around impoverished teenagers who face such obstacles as homelessness, hunger, family breakdown, physical and mental illness, bad grades and a dim view of the future.
An organization called Thread has been seeking out troubled students at three Baltimore public high schools and connecting them with teams of five to eight volunteers who commit to helping their students in any way necessary, being available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and sticking with them for 10 years. So far, the students and their mentors have achieved extraordinary results. And the students didn’t look promising in the beginning. Thread sought kids in the bottom quarter of the academic class, kids who were chronically late, absent, in trouble and in danger of failing or dropping out.
Thread’s work is described in a Baltimore Sun story by Erica L. Green and a New York Times “Fixes” column by David Bornstein.
The organization was started 12 years ago by Sarah Hemminger, who was then studying biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins Medical School, and her husband, Ryan. She knew how poverty and other adversities could derail young lives. Her husband had plunged into teen-aged despair and academic disaster after a family tragedy and been rescued by a group of teachers who showered him with carefully structured care and guidance. Hemminger believed she could relate to struggling students and she recruited fellow Johns Hopkins students to volunteer. Thread is a nonprofit, supported by grants and donation. It now has 800 volunteers, 175 collaborators who provide expertise and resources, and it serves 225 students and alumni. .
The idea, Hemminger explained in interviews, is to provide unconditional support and do whatever it takes to help teens develop into adults who can manage fulfilling lives. That support might mean wake up calls, rides to school, food, clothing, homework help, SAT preparation, child care, legal help, and assistance with applications for jobs and college. One volunteer might drive the youngster to school, another might pick him up, another might be there to hang out and talk about life. Volunteers take students to restaurants, movies and camping trips and sometimes provide homes for them. Students have to agree to join the program, and their guardians have to agree as well.
“We tell the kids ‘Once you’re in you can’t get out. This is serious, It’s not something you can undo. You’re going to want to undo this, but once it’s happened, it’s happened,’” Hemminger told The Times. One of the Thread graduates interviewed by The Times graduated from high school and at 23 is a junior at Towson University. When he enrolled as a ninth grader in 2007, his crack-addicted mother had abandoned him, his father had just gotten out of jail, and he was in the bottom 10 percent of his class. He and his father were homeless for long periods, and for a while he lived in an abandoned house with no heat or running water. He was initially attracted to the program by an offer of free pizza. But the volunteers were serious and persistent, urging him to get up, go to school, do his work and remember his hopes and goals. Over the last nine years, his lives and theirs have become entwined, “People outside my race, age range and blood family have become the people closest to me,” he said.
Two powerful innovations by Thread, according to Robert Balfanz, a leading researcher at the Johns Hopkins School of education, are staying with the kids over time to get them into adulthood, and having a group of people for each student, so the commitment never becomes overwhelming for one person.
Abell Foundation President Robert Embry Jr., who has provided support and guidance to Thread, says the organization has “shattered preconceptions” by its successful work with teenagers. A lot of experts, he said, think interventions are useless unless they take place in infancy or early childhood.
According to the Thread website, 92 percent of students who have been with Thread for five years have graduated from high school and 90 percent have been accepted in college; 80 percent of alumni have completed a four or two year degree or certificate program. Read more stories about Thread here.