There are lots of teens in west county who have immense obstacles as they grow up, go to school and face the world.
They are sadly invisible to most of us. They don’t talk about their struggles. On the contrary, too many want to keep things quiet — whether to avoid embarrassment, to project an image of control even though it is not really true or just because they want others to think they are just like everybody else.
But the reality is so different. For them, high school is not just a challenge of hitting the books and writing the papers. They have to overcome. It may be a physical impairment, a dysfunctional home, drug abuse or a hundred other hurdles that could easily leave them wallowing in self-pity or hopeless pessimism. But in the face of all that, some succeed.
At the Sebastopol Rotary, of which I am the president this year, we celebrate that success. Once a year — this past week in fact — we have a luncheon where we give out what we call the “Overcoming Obstacles Awards.” We ask guidance counselors at our three local high schools, El Molino, Analy and Laguna, to invite students who have faced adversity to tell us their stories. We read their essays, pick out the six who stand out and invite them to join us for a day to share their stories and to listen to successful adults who recite their own struggles about overcoming adversity.
We give each student $200 in cash and a scholarship recently increased to $1,600 (plus another $1,000 scholarship for the student who has made the best impression on our VIP judges).
We don’t share these stories beyond our meeting, but there are real lessons to be learned anyway.
First, there are more of these students than we like to admit. Every year when we read the essays of those who have decided to participate, we are struck, maybe overwhelmed, by the extraordinary circumstances so many confront. The response is inevitably: “ How could that be?” or “No one would do that to a child!” but the stories are true, and, sadly, reappear in infinite variations every year.
So, when we talk about education or preparing our children for the real world, we have to keep in mind constantly how many kids face unbelievable adversity — and face it mostly in silence.
Second, we can’t write these kids off. What their stories prove to us is that with help and support, they can succeed.
Third, they need and deserve support, and we all benefit from it. Virtually every student essay we read has the same story line. Somewhere along the way, a caring adult steps in to support that student. And with that support, that student takes control of his or her life. Not just to be a productive member of society, but to become a real force for good.
These stories are both gratifying and troubling. The gratifying thing is to hear how many of these adults are caring school teachers. The troubling thing is how most schools in this country do not have the kind of financial support necessary to build a program for the social and emotional development of children — meaning all children — and not just the lucky few who have found instructors who are their rock and salvation.
Fourth, participating in our Overcoming Obstacles program is profoundly affecting. Most of our awardees have never talked about their struggles to a group. They have never opened up. But sharing with us in Rotary creates an extraordinary transformation. Once they can speak about their experience, they can begin to put it in perspective, and, eventually, behind them. And once they appreciate they are not alone and not dismissed, they are empowered.
So here is what Sebastopol Rotary would like to invite you to do: Think about kids like our awardees. If you know one, reach out and help. Be a good citizen and voter and encourage our schools to provide social and emotional support for all children, so that every child who struggles can have someone they can count on. And recognize the importance of community. Whether or not they are our biological children, they are our children in the sense that they are our future. They need us, and we need them.
Larry Ford is the president of the Sebastopol Rotary Club.