I remember my English teacher, Mr. Townsend’s favorite saying – “To those whom much is given, from them much is expected.” Funny, how we try to live up to the expectations of those we admire, be it parents, teachers, or friends. Those who demand nothing of us are never disappointed, but miss out on the opportunity to helps us grow.
I’ve been very fortunate in my life to have met people who gave of themselves, often without my ever having asked. From the soldier whose name I never knew who carried me on his shoulder across a dark, icy river to the family who took in a young refugee boy, to the dentist who fixed my teeth without payment, knowing I had no money; from the parish priest who paid my school tuition to the unknown benefactor who provided my university scholarship – I’ve had angels in my life to help me build a bridge to tomorrow. A great scientist, being praised for his accomplishments, demurred by saying, “We are where we are today because we stand on the shoulders of giants.” I can say the same.
Life gives us lots of opportunities to provide service to others, and in doing so, changing their lives, as well as our own. Reading the newspaper, watching the news on TV, it’s very easy to develop a cynical view of people and the world, for we are bombarded with negative descriptions of people and their character. For some reason, the public’s attention is more easily captured by bad things rather than good. My wife and some of her friends were having lunch in a restaurant, celebrating a birthday. They were a little noisy, laughing and enjoying each other’s company and the moment. When it came time to pay the bill, the waiter informed them that the elder gentleman in the booth behind them had already picked up their tab, with a message that their enjoyment of each other was more than enough thanks for him. To this day, she not only still tells that story, but his action has inspired us to give a similar kindness to someone we don’t know.
The point of all this is that we are always trying to find ways in which we can make a difference for someone else in a manner similar to how we were helped. Since both Miki and I are, or have been, involved in education, we were both attracted to the concept of the Partnership Scholars program. Started by Dr. Glenn Langer, a now retired cardiologist from UCLA, the program fosters an interest in further education amongst low income, at-risk children with the goal of getting them a full tuition scholarship at one of the University of California schools, or similar high quality institution. Students are nominated by their 6th grade teachers, then selected based on academic ability (have to maintain a 3.0 GPA), financial need (qualify for the federal free lunch program), and the willingness of a parent or other adult to sponsor/support the aims of the program. Teachers from participating schools donate their time as mentors to the students, offering them opportunities for involvement in activities they would never have otherwise done. You have to realize that most of these students, while living only a few miles from the ocean, have never been to the beach. They have never gone to visit a college campus. They had never seen a play or visited a large library. Some have never been in a restaurant. From 7th grade through senior year in high school, each mentor works with 2-4 students, engaging them in these and similar other activities, showing them there is a world beyond the walls of the ghetto and the gangs, and they can have a part in it. So far, over 250 students have been enrolled in the program at a number of different schools throughout Southern and Northern California. It costs $9,800 for the six years each student is enrolled. The results speak for themselves. So far, of the dozens of students who have finished the program, several have gone on to prestigious universities such as Stanford and Wellesley, in addition to those at the various UC schools. Most telling, however, is the fact that some are now working as mentors themselves, or have intentions of doing the same when they graduate. In terms of scholarship money alone, the return on investment for these students has been 10:1. In terms of changing their lives, the return has been priceless. Schools that had never before seen their graduates go on beyond junior college are now having alumni at major public and private universities. And not only have the students benefited, but so have their teachers and families. One teacher I met with told me the following story regarding one of her students.
Ramon was given the opportunity to spend the day on Catalina Island, located twenty miles off the coast of Los Angeles. However, it was his responsibility to find out how to get to the harbor, and for this he had to learn how to read a map. Then he had to call and obtain a schedule of the ferries, so he had to learn how to read a timetable. It was also his responsibility to make the reservations, and keep track of the time so they could get the ferry to come back home. The outing turned out to be a great success in more ways then one. On getting home, Ramon’s grandfather developed stomach pain severe enough that the family needed to take him to a hospital. However, no one knew where was the nearest hospital, or how to get there. Ramon, who was still in possession of the Thomas Brothers Guide to Los Angeles, had no problem locating the nearest hospital (marked on the map) or giving his father directions on how to get there in the family truck.
Another teacher I spoke with told me of the frustration of watching bright kids drift into the gangs and hopelessness that so pervade low-income schools. When the Partnership Scholar program started at her school, she was a reluctant initial volunteer. However, as she saw the effects of the program on the lives of her students, she not only developed a newfound enthusiasm and energy for teaching, but saw the development of an esprit de corps amongst other mentor teachers as well.
The last facet of the program that attracted us is the fact that 100% of the money we donated has gone directly to the kids. Dr. Langer has personally underwritten the administrative costs of the organization, and almost all involved are unpaid volunteers. If you would like to find out more about the program, check out their website at www.partnershipscholars.org or leave me a comment on this site, and I’ll get back to you. As my favorite Gandhi quote states, “you must be the change you wish to see in the world.”