The South Bronx in the 1940s. I'm the young son of Jamaican immigrants. And what's one of the biggest influences in my childhood? The Young Men's Hebrew Association. Go figure.

It's not as surprising as it might seem. I grew up in a diverse New York neighborhood called Banana Kelly. My friends were Puerto Rican, Italian, and Greek. My entire life pretty much spanned a few blocks, with school on one end of Kelly Street, and my church, St. Margaret's Episcopal, on the other. Church was important in my family. We had our own pew, and I was even an altar boy. But after school, I headed to the Jewish center because both my parents worked and it was a safe place for me.

It was a cornerstone of the community. It was filled with people who really cared about kids--everybody's kids. That sense of community made all the difference in my childhood.

Today, I lead a national crusade making that same difference for young people all across this country. At America's Promise--The Alliance for Youth, our mission is to endow the next generation with the assets they need to succeed, like character and competence, and to give them safe places and a sense of belonging.

By right of birth, every child deserves what we call the Five Promises:
  • Ongoing relationships with caring adults--parents, mentors, tutors, or coaches
  • Safe places with structured activities during nonschool hours
  • Healthy start and future
  • Marketable skills through effective education
  • Opportunities to give back through community service

    Congregations of Promise
    We're working hard to fulfill these promises for young people through partnerships with corporations and communities, not-for-profits, government, and schools.

    And faith groups are natural partners, impacting children in ways few other institutions can. A congregation is a cadre of caring adults, role models, and mentors. In crime-infested communities, a church or synagogue may be the only safe haven for blocks. Faith groups have a long tradition of helping youth help themselves and the community.

    We have 24 faith partners in our Alliance, and the number is growing. They're doing miraculous work. The African Methodist Episcopal Church in Miami, Florida, is teaching inner-city kids to use computers. These kids are suffering from what I call "Digital Apartheid," being left behind as technology rapidly advances.

    In Hampton Roads, Virginia, young people wait for the school bus while talking to the Reverend Barnett at the A.M.E. Zion Church about everything from ethics to summer jobs. For some kids, on some days, he may seem like the only adult who takes an interest. The church also offers meals and homework help after school, while teaching kids about character.

    The Fellowship of Christian Athletes helps young people nationwide achieve spiritual and physical health by learning about the dangers of drugs, the rewards of exercise, and the strength of faith through sports, camps, and team meetings called "huddles."

    Vision Quest is transforming kids who have crossed the line. They use Native American spirituality to rehabilitate juvenile-justice offenders in "boot-and-hat-camps," where they're expected to use not just their feet, but their heads, too. Each kid is in charge of a horse, everything the animal needs--food, grooming, exercise. It's the first time anyone's ever expected anything from them. And the majority rise to the challenge. Up to 86% are never incarcerated again. `Nuff said.

    The Challenge

    We need every faith group to follow their lead. Why? We know it works. Young people with the Five Promises in their lives are less likely to use alcohol or tobacco, engage in risky behavior, or drop out of school. Youth today are our future neighbors, employees, customers, and congregations. Our choice is simple: We either build up our kids or build more jails.

    I'm excited about our new partnership with Beliefnet. They're creating 365 new Congregations of Promise. Together, we can harness the power of the internet with the force of faith, and reach millions of people like you.

    So, watch this space. Over the next several months, I'll tell you more about how we can unite faith groups across the country to rally around the kids. But don't wait for my next column. Start by thinking about your own house of worship. Is it doing enough? Consider becoming a Congregation of Promise. E-mail us at faith@americaspromise.org or webservices@beliefnet.com to find out how.

    Together, we can give today's kids that sense of belonging I felt on Kelly Street. Let's help them grow up with faith in their community.

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