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Best Kept Secret - Martha Randolph Carr

Let's spread some good news around this week. Spring has sprung and we could all use a little something to cheer. There actually is something in America that we're doing quite well these days, and with less taxpayer money.

However, very few voters even know its happening. Imagine that, in the age of the internet and Twitter and a desperate need for good news, but its true.

Well, here it is. Our country is sending more children who grow up at U.S. orphanages to college than from the general population, significantly more children. Yes, orphanages still exist in the U.S., but are now known as residential education facilities or REF's, due to the myths surrounding the term orphanage.

As usual, we keep better track of our cars than we do the 600,000 children in need of a loving home, but the individual homes see each child as a family member, of course, and 80 percent of the kids head off to higher learning.

Just so we can get past the images of Annie that just popped in your head, let's set the record straight right up front. A U.S. orphanage resembles an upscale boarding school with all the amenities. They have a staff that generally devotes their entire career and their life to the children who come through their doors. Lil' Orphan Annie landed in a group home, which is vastly different and fictional, by the way.

Now, here's another statistic from the well-respected Pew Report on the U.S. foster care system. If that same child were to end up in foster care in our country, they'd have less than a 50 percent chance of graduating from high school and an increased likelihood of having periods of homelessness and unemployment in their lifetime. The factors surrounding the child's background are the same, so it's not the child who is failing. It's the system.

One more fun fact to really spell it out. The Pew Report also found that a child who ends up in an Illinois children's home from social services has been, on average, through 9 foster care placements. That means that nine families said we can't handle this kid and the child packed up everything they owned and headed off to yet another stranger's house.

In Virginia, the average was found to be five. Talk about potential abandonment issues. There aren't many adults who could handle that much change with any grace or without losing hope.

And yet, Mercy Home in Chicago, for example, still has amazing success with forming lifetime familial bonds with each child who grows up, then goes on to college and forms a family of his or her own and becomes a giving member of their community.

Here's another statistic that will speak to the possibilities. In the state of Texas, it costs $50,000 per year to incarcerate a youth, and frankly, a lot of us feel better when we know that the kid who stole the car or was dealing drugs is now behind bars. There's a common perception that by the time a child is 13 years old and troubled, the personality is set and there's only so much leeway left. It would take a miracle to change course.

However, at Happy Hill Farm Academy just outside of Fort Worth, Texas it costs only about $26,000 a year to give that kid another chance, and Ed Shipman, the founder, is proving year after year how well that works. Not one dime comes from a bailout or even a bank. There are a few simple miracles to think about for you.

This is also one of those situations where it's not possible to see what a child could have contributed to their society or family. We can only imagine. Again, not really true.

All we have to do is look at the hundreds of thousands of people who have passed through America's REF's and see the upstanding parents and spouses they've become. That and the fact that they are more likely to volunteer in their communities, attend a place of worship and make great teachers, policemen, architects. And in one case, a Mercy Man, as the alumni is nicknamed, a still-respected former head of the Chicago Board of Trade and Oprah's neighbor. That would be Pat Arbor, who has spent a lifetime offering a helping hand to generations of Mercy men and women.

So, here's where society can get involved and really live up to that old saying that it takes a village to raise a child. There is probably an REF near you that could use your time and money to keep doing great stuff. Get busy and go to www.residentialeducation.org to find any of the great places mentioned and more, and offer both. Be a valuable part of that wonderful statistic that represents another child who got to live out dreams they thought were only on TV before their feet landed at a loving home for children.

If you'd like to get involved in the 2009 America Challenge to raise funds for community-based charities, e-mail me at Martha@CagleCartoons.com, for more information. Together, we're going to build stronger communities and empower ourselves.

Martha's column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc., newspaper syndicate. E-mail her at: Martha@caglecartoons.com.