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HomeNewsArchivesThe Kids Count Survey: A Look Back at Lessons Learned

The Kids Count Survey: A Look Back at Lessons Learned

Once again, the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands has done an enormous public service by publishing its latest Kids Count survey. (See "Latest Data on V.I. Children Brings More Bad News.") And once again, the results of the survey send a message of serious danger for the future — both immediate and long-term — of the Virgin Islands. History is a useful tool in figuring out where to go from here, and the history of children's and youth services in the territory carries a number of valuable lessons.
More than 25 years ago, I led the effort to launch the St. Thomas-St. John Youth Multi-Service Center. This initiative was based on two core principles: first, that there were virtually no youth services in the territory, and, second, that the failure to guide and serve young people would have bad consequences for these youngsters, for the communities in which they lived and the V.I. economy.
Our concept was a simple but ambitious one: to develop two comprehensive, high-quality centers, one on St. Thomas and one on St. Croix, to serve all young people essentially under one roof. The centers were to be modeled on success stories elsewhere, particularly The Door in New York City.
The story of the Youth Multi-Service Center is worth telling because it has direct relevance to the situation that exists today, and to the search for workable solutions. Mine are the perceptions of an involved outsider who understands that people don't like being criticized by outsiders. Unfortunately, telling this story accurately and learning the most important lessons in planning for the future require some criticism if we are to understand the problems and barriers facing the community in moving forward. The ongoing repetition of the phrase "the children are the future," in the absence of meaningful action, is essentially useless, and expressing outrage and blaming someone else are light work.
The promise of the Youth Multi-Service center was never fulfilled. The original concept was to have a single convenient facility that would provide a comprehensive range of out-of-school educational, vocational, employment, health, mental health and behavioral and cultural programs and services. The idea was to construct the first center on St. Thomas and then immediately replicate it on St. Croix, with specific modifications for local conditions and community desires.
What happened? While the need for such services — especially given the Kids Count findings on youth idleness — are dire today, they were very serious in 1980. Making the case was not a problem. The problem was finding people with leverage and money who cared enough to do something about it. In the end, there weren't enough such people to support a concept that could have changed the community in a fundamental way. But there were two extraordinary men, the late Calvin Wheatley and the late Wilburn Smith — one the assistant to the governor and the latter deputy education commissioner — who saw the problem clearly and had a burning commitment to make the center happen. With their guidance and support, along with help from a handful of others, the St. Thomas center was launched.
In the end, we got the St. Thomas-St. John Center up and running, but for a variety of reasons it never became the true multi-service center that we had envisioned. Its focus was largely on remedial education. And its governing board never coalesced to provide the clear direction and support that was needed, particularly in the early years. It never operated from a solid financial platform, and cash-flow worries were chronic.
There is a critical lesson here about building successful and sustainable enterprises. The center was almost immediately dependent on V.I. government funding which, in the end, proved to be its undoing. While money isn't everything, you can do very little without it. In the words of the old comedian Fred Allen, "There are many things in life more important than money, and they all cost money." Because the original concept was shrunken, the center never had the community impact that we had originally projected and, therefore, never generated a high level of community support. In the end, the Multi-Service Center closed and was replaced by nothing.
Then there was the challenge of a St. Croix center, a different story in that no youth center was ever developed. It died in a single day, when during a presentation of the plan to the community at UVI, a group of "activists" said that they did not need any outsiders ripping them off and telling them what to do, and that it was just another example of throwing St. Croix a bone after building a center on St. Thomas. Other community members, all of whom later claimed to want the center, sat silently. No one in the audience challenged this view, and, having been through this before on St. Croix, my response was, "Fine." I informed my V.I. government contact that I would terminate the contract and turn back the St. Croix portion. It would be interesting to know how many times some version of this scenario has been repeated on St. Croix, and at what cost to the community. I have no solutions to this problem.
So what are the lessons of this experience? First, there needs to be a high level of community understanding and support, especially the financial support of wealthy people. This may not be achievable with an outsider. Second, the concept worked and will almost certainly work today. If you build it, they will come. Next, there is an opportunity today, because the territory has strong and visionary political leadership. Finally, the challenges are fundamentally the same, except that they have become more difficult, but there is a path to success.
Editor's note: Frank Schneiger is the president of Human Services Management Institute, a management consulting firm that focuses on organizational change. Much of his current work is in the area of problems of execution and implementing rapid changes as responses to operational problems.
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