I serve on quite a few community coalitions that address issues affecting our youth and how to guide children, teens and young adults to make healthy decisions. If you’ve been alive so long that your memory has stored the Kodachrome images of childhood in frames nostalgically gilded with Huck Finn-like images of childhood innocence and freedom from care… well I hate to burst your bubble, but your memory is playing tricks on you (and you probably need to go back and reread Mark Twain). The years of our youth are full of challenges, disappointments, tragedies, fears and betrayals; it’s those struggles that help us to become resilient, compassionate adults.
Often when adults question “How can we help kids to make better decisions?”, I think one simple response is to be aware of the messages we send them through our own actions. Kids learn much more by watching what we do than by listening to what we say. When my sons were teens they would roll their eyes as I imparted well-intentioned pearls of wisdom (teenage translation –Mom’s constantly nagging me about stuff I haven’t even done). Like most parents I thought my words fell on deaf ears. But my work on the Shenendehowa Community Coalition suggests otherwise. Time and time again students have told us (in interviews and anonymous surveys) that their parents are the top influence as they make decisions about using drugs or alcohol.
So last week I found one article about David Cassidy’s volunteerism at CAPTAIN’s summer lunch program really troubling. Glenn Griffith’scoverage of Cassidy’s mandatory community service gushed unabashedly about Cassidy’s generosity, humility and caring…. as well as his fame. Cassidy has repeatedly driven drunk (a DUI in Florida followed by 2 DWIs within a six month period, one in California and one in NYS). The repeat convictions for driving intoxicated raise questions about whether he takes any of this seriously (he reportedly even failed to attend a court date for the NYS arrest, instead choosing to spend the day at the track.) I wish the man no ill and hope that the arrests have led him to evaluate his choices to get behind the wheel after drinking, but wonder what message we are sending to our youth with this public adoration of Cassidy’s community spirit, while downplaying the severity of the offense that prompted the community service. These are the same kids we’ll soon be talking to about the dangers of drunk driving. If community service and laudatory news articles are the only consequences they see, will they take us seriously when we explain the decision to drive drunk can be a life altering mistake?
I’d welcome an article about the really great work CAPTAIN does for kids every day… about their dedicated staff and passionate volunteers. Their summer lunch program served 1,700 lunches per week this summer at 12 sites throughout Saratoga County. Yes, you read that right-- 1,700 lunches each week! Any kid under 18 who needed a lunch got one, just for asking. If you think poverty, homelessness and hunger don't exist in Saratoga County, those numbers should get you thinking. These kids sit beside yours in schools all over the county. They play on the playground together. They study for the same math tests. And their families struggle to provide for the most basic needs. The challenges these families strive to overcome and the agencies like CAPTAIN who are working every day to help them--- that's what I find inspirational.
But Griffith’s front page news article lauding a ‘celebrity’ for mandated community service, sugarcoats the reality that drunk drivers cause accidents with tragic consequences. It also ignores the reality that a multiple drunk driving offender was sentenced to a $900 fine, 6 months' license suspension and community service. Let’s think about the messages we’re sending our community and our kids. They are watching.