My Dream for Central Florida: A Safe Place to Raise Our Children
By Gary Cain, President & CEO, Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida
Central Florida. The Promised Land for children. A place where fairy tales and storybooks come to life. A land of magic castles, sidewalks that shimmer, and a sky that’s illuminated by fireworks every single night of the year. Across the globe, children grow up yearning to visit this mystical place that we call home. Could there be a more wonderful place for a child to grow up?
Yes, there could.
Sadly, most of the children we serve through Boys & Girls Clubs live in a very different Central Florida. A tougher, more dangerous place, just a short drive beyond the theme park gates.
Last week, I opened the Orlando Sentinel to learn that another member of our Boys & Girls Clubs family—the father of one of our Club members–had been gunned down near his home in Parramore. He was the second Club parent we’ve lost to gun violence in 2016, in addition to 3 Club members and one sibling of a Club member.
The Sentinel article also pointed another dreadful statistic. Not including the 49 people who lost their lives in the Pulse nightclub massacre, Orange County’s 2016 murder rate, year-to-date, is up from 51 to 75, an unacceptable 47% increase over 2015.
Imagine how difficult it is to raise emotionally healthy children in a neighborhood where you routinely pass crime scene tape walking your children to school. Where your children need to stay indoors to avoid contact with gang members, drug deals, or worse, stray gunfire. The aforementioned Parramore shootings occurred not in a dark alley behind a warehouse, but less than one block from a day care center and from Grand Avenue Elementary, where many of our Club members attend school. For these children, violence and death are a part of their reality. The article quoted the day care owner’s description of the area: “Every corner here has children. This isn’t even a scary neighborhood.”
Of course, it’s easy to decry a problem without suggesting solutions. How can we make Central Florida streets safer for our children? What if we, working together, could actually build a community known for cherishing our children, providing them with the resources they need to be safe, stay in school, and become productive, caring adults? How would we do this?
Well, we could spend more on police. But of the 104 largest cities in the United States, Orlando already ranks 4th in per capita police spending. In 2015, we spent $675 on police protection for every man, woman and child living in Orlando. Still, in ranking after ranking, year after year, Orlando is among the cities with the highest crime rates in the country. Our noble police force is fighting a losing battle—trying to contain the burgeoning population of criminals that our society has created.
Some think we should spend more on jails. Yet Florida already ranks 4th in the United States in prison spending, more than $2 billion per year to lock people up. And our recidivism rate is astonishingly high—one in 3 released prisoners return to incarceration within 3 years.
We can, and should, continue to support programs that address crime, in addition to health care, hunger, homelessness and job training for our society’s most vulnerable. But what if we could address these problems before they arise?
My firm belief is that if we really want to solve so many of the problems plaguing today’s world—poverty, crime, violence, drug abuse, homelessness—then we need to look at the pipeline filled with at-risk children who, without intervention, become disadvantaged adults. From a purely pragmatic angle, how should we devote our scarce societal resources to stop the cycle of poverty? What can be done to narrow the distance between the illusion of Central Florida as nirvana for children, and the reality?
It will come as no surprise to you that I believe with all my heart that Boys & Girls Clubs are a major part of this solution. Every day after school lets out, and all summer long, we open our doors to thousands of at-risk children across the region, giving them a place – truly a second home for many – to be safe, loved, nurtured and fed. 91% of our children qualify for free or reduced lunch; 60% live in single-parent households; 73% come from families with household incomes of $30,000 or less. Our aim is to minister to the very children who are at risk in so many ways, and to give them what they need to become healthy, emotionally whole, contributing members of society.
And the good news is, for the children who attend our Clubs, it’s working. Of the 13,849 children we served in our region last year, 93% had no arrests; 90% abstained from smoking, drinking and sexual activity; 100% of our seniors earned their diplomas, and 91% have post-secondary education plans.
And here’s the kicker: for every $1 of expenditure, Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida generates $17.81 of positive economic impact in the community. If you’re aware of an investment with that kind of ROI, kindly let me know.
Boys & Girls Clubs are not the whole solution, but we’re proud to be a part of it. There are thousands of children, because of limited resources, that we can’t serve. My hope is that our leaders – those in positions of authority, in both the public and private sectors—will come to see the wisdom of investing in at-risk children when they’ve still got a chance.
Then, and only then, will the real Central Florida resemble the one of childhood dreams.