More than at any other time in U.S. history, some 17 million children—almost a quarter of all minors—live in poverty in America. As a result, children are by far the largest demographic group facing the effects of poverty on a daily basis, and the least able to confront it.
As a poverty amelioration organization whose client-base comprises 40% children, The River Fund New York has been dealing with the growth of food-insufficiency in New York City where poverty and its effects, including hunger and homelessness, have hit levels that rival those recorded here during the Great Depression. Further, as policymakers struggle to balance budgets, government programs for children and families that were created to cushion severe hardship have been targeted for deep cuts.
At first, children who grow up in poverty don’t realize that there’s a problem. Eventually, however, the effects begin to show: Either the lack of adequate nutrition manifests itself in various ways—including learning disabilities and other disorders, health challenges and growth problems—or the gradual realization that they and their families are viewed as society’s garbage takes a severe, and often permanent, emotional toll—including drug use, suicide, gang-affiliation for social connectedness and criminal behavior fueled by frustration and anger.
Contrary to common assumptions, truly breaking the cycle of poverty in poor communities STARTS in the minds of the younger generations in those communities. If a young person grows up believing that (s)he will always be poor, it will be almost impossible—given our current social structure—to move that person out of poverty as an adult.
The River Fund aggressively addresses the “self-awareness of poverty” in the minds of the children we serve in several ways. This is always with the objective of letting the child understand that WE believe they’re IMPORTANT. But, being important comes with responsibilities. The message we are building in the mind of the child is this: “As an important member of society, you’re entitled to be invested in—which means you need to deliver a return back to society. You matter NOW because you WILL be worth a lot more when you’re older—and you can start proving that today by acting accordingly. We’ve got your back as you grow up.”
So, how do you let kids feel this? It takes constant reinforcement—including the strategic creation of meaningful programs that address the needs of children at whatever level they may be when they come to us. It also requires programs to ensure that their adult family members are getting respect—at least from us, even if not from anywhere else. Older children also need to see that there are potential paths out of poverty for their parents and guardians, so allowing children to see our benefits access work in action is an essential part of this endeavor.
Our approach lets children see that it’s not just what WE think that matters. We (1) care for them in ways that are important to them, (2) care for their families in ways that are matter to their families, and (3) allow them to help us to do all of it—because being a “community member who is determined against all odds to care for other community members” means you will give your time and energy to ensure that you’re giving back more than is given to you.
Although most charities operating in our arena have had difficulty attracting young people as volunteers, as a result of our way of doing things with children, The River Fund has always been able to maintain a very large corps of young team-members. Most of these highly dedicated young men and women started with us as kids accompanying their parents and guardians on our lines. Some are their classmates from school who get infected by our culture of service, come to one of our programs to help out for a few hours, and then never leave. Regardless of which way they come to us, they all learn here that “together we make a difference”—and their communities will be better for it when they grow up and become fully capable adults.
Our key children’s initiatives include:—
- Child Poverty Awareness Day—let's local businesses demonstrate their concern for children in poverty at a great community fun-day on the second Sunday every August.
- Our Back-to-School Initiative—provides backpacks and school supplies
- Teaching Kids to Cook—an 8-week fun curriculum for children and their parents
- Children’s Organic Vitamins—our monthly kids’ vitamin distribution program
- The River Fund Cobras Basketball Team—to keep at-risk youth off the streets in summer
- Summer Camp Initiative—in collaboration with The Fresh Air Fund
- Kid’s New Winterwear Giveaways—for warm clothing in the winter months
- Holiday Gift-Giving—tens of thousands of toys to kids during Xmas
- Annual Shoes4Kids at Payless—free shoes on MLK Weekend in January
- Easter Basket Giveaway—where kids get to meet the Easter Bunny and take home a giftbasket
Making Kids Feel Important:
City kids need to get out into the countryside in summer—and get some fresh air. Our partnership with The Fresh Air Fund makes that possible for many children. READ MORE.
The River Fund has been hosting massive Xmas toy-giveaways for many years. At our site in Richmond Hill, we typically provide gifts for 3,000 or more on a single Saturday. READ MORE.
There's nothing like getting your school supplies—when you thought you were going back to school empty-handed! READ MORE.
Some of the 200+ children and their families who joined us for the nation's very first "Child Poverty Awareness Day"—launched by The River Fund on the second Sunday in August this year. READ MORE.
Every January, on the Martin Luther King National Weekend of Service, dozens of kids get free shoes at our Shoes4Kids event, sponsored in part by The Payless Foundation. READ MORE.
After the cold winter, our Easterbasket Giveaway is a great event for kids whose parents depend on The River Fund's food pantry for weekly groceries—and the Easter Bunny gives every one of them a giftbasket. READ MORE.