Where Hope Blossoms
They are children like too many others in metropolitan Detroit. They come from battered neighborhoods and fractured homes (assuming, of course, they actually had a house to call home). They've been wrenched by ordeals that, taken together, seem a showcase of the worst that the city has to offer, from the violent deaths of parents to gang warfare in the streets. Some of them already know what it feels like to be abandoned, neglected and written off.
And yet...they are children like too few others in metropolitan Detroit. They succeed at the highest levels at some of the most prestigious and academically challenging college prep institutions in the area. They exude a quiet intellectual confidence, even in the presence of some of the region's biggest movers and shakers. They shake hands firmly, look you straight in the eye and smile with the certainty that you'll respond likewise. (And you do.) More importantly, all of them will attend college soon after high-school graduation and the overwhelming majority will go on to shining professional success.
They are the children of Boys Hope Girls Hope Detroit, one of the most intensive, comprehensive and successful development programs for at-risk youth anywhere in the nation.
Founded in St. Louis in 1977 and expanded to Detroit in 1985, the BHGH program is dedicated to uplifting academically capable children who have been traumatized by dysfunctional neighborhoods and/or family lives. BHGH provides them with all of the tools possible for success, from mentors to scholarships to schools like Birmingham Brother Rice High School to homes where many of the children live until they go away to college.
"We do all we can for these kids," says Darlene A. Thomas, the executive director of BHGH, "even when we don't know how that's going to end. These kids have had it tough. We're there to be their second family."
Thomas says every child in the program has suffered a loss of a friend or family member through violence. "One hundred percent of our kids have had a loss through violence," says Thomas. "One hundred percent! I've had a kid come to me and say, 'The only thing I have ever wanted was a mom and a dad.' That's because his parents were murdered in separate circumstances."
Part of a wider network of Boys Hope Girls Hope programs scattered across the globe, BHGH Detroit serves 29 children currently, including several kids who have only recently graduated high school and begun college. The program works with children as young as 13 and provides each an opportunity to attend one of three highly respected local prep schools: Brother Rice, University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Detroit Cristo Rey High School. BHGH also owns two homes in Detroit -- one for boys, one for girls -- where the children can stay if their family households are too tumultuous.
"And the homes are in the city," says Thomas. "We're committed to staying in Detroit."
As Thomas and others point out, BHGH doesn't just shepherd the kids through high school. The program continues to serve them even into adulthood, providing mentors, professional role models and, most importantly, love. "We never give up on a child," she says. "It's not always easy. But we see them through."
Travis Michael, 35, knows this well. Nearly 20 years ago, Michael moved to Detroit from Washington, DC, to get a fresh start on life after a troubled youth. He joined BHGH and eventually went on to a career as a corporate lawyer. Michael now serves as a member of the BHGH board of directors.
Though Michael chooses not to talk much about his past, he says the program gave him new direction as well as opportunities to succeed. And he's determined to give back to BHGH what it imparted to him. "The interactions I've had in the program have contributed significantly to my development," he says. "The overall support I get and continue to receive from Boys Hope is wonderful. It has supported me through college and through law school. And I've been an active member of the board since completing undergrad."
Michael says BHGH doesn't get as much attention as other programs that work with children, partly because it chooses to work with smaller groups of kids than many outreach programs. However, he believes that BHGH's intensive focus on a relatively small group of children goes a long way toward explaining the program's success. "It's very important that we are allowed to concentrate resources into individual children who are representative of some of the best and brightest from their community," he says. "They need an opportunity to bloom. The return on that investment is huge, as opposed to getting a bunch of kids from a variety of situations, trying to help them get by. We exist at the pleasure of some of those other groups that embrace a wider swath of kids and do great work int heir community. We exist because of their great work, and we can do our great work and create a next generation of leaders.
"You've got ladies going on to be lawyers and doctors," he continues." You've got talented young cats talking about becoming lawyers, advertising executives, all kinds of things. It's bringing forth that next generation."
LEADERS OF THE NEW SCHOOL
Ashley Clingman-Jackson is part of that next generation. Born and raised in Detroit, she grew up poor in the city, caring for her siblings while her mom worked tirelessly to put food on the table. "My mother treated me like an adult therefore I acted as such," she recently recalled. "I cooked, cleaned, tutored my brothers, prepared them to school, etc. My day consisted of the usual activities of a parent combined with all the stress of being a teenager beginning high school."
She joined Boys Hope Girls Hope after she and her mom realized that the program offered her a chance at the prep school education her family would never be able to afford on its own. Clingman-Jackson is now a senior at American University in Washington, DC.
"BHGH allowed me to focus on my education and form bonds with individuals my own age," she says.
Clingman-Jackson says she's returned to BHGH in the years since she started college, helping sponsor programs and serving as a mentor for the younger children. She echoes Thomas and Michael when she talks about the program's far-reaching influence and the intense bonds it fosters among the children and staff alike.
"The most important thing people should know," says Clingman-Jackson, "is that we are a family. The love we have for each other is unconditional. That love keeps us all motivated to succeed."
Indeed, BHGH may not be the largest organization in Detroit. But its impact has been enormous.
Boys Hope Girls Hope is seeking donations. Contributions can be sent directly to the organization. The group is also among other charities listed on tickets for the North American Auto Show, to be held Jan. 11 through Jan. 24. Ticket holders can contribute to the group by checking its name, ensuring that a portion of the Auto Show proceeds go directly to BHGH.