I’ve worked in politics, media relations, education, nonprofits and help pay the rent as a writer. Around age 50, I realized it was time to think about how to wrap up the remainder of my most productive years.
Through the Minnesota Alliance With Youth, I discovered the incredible menu of opportunities for my age group offered by federally-funded Americorps programs, including VISTA, Senior Corps and the Promise Fellows program, currently available in Minnesota and Massachusetts.
Two years ago, I began work as one of more than 200 Promise Fellows in schools and community organizations throughout the state, working with students in sixth to tenth grade, who are at risk of dropping out. Essentially we are mentors, red-flagging them for attention if they miss school or get an unexpected D-minus. When the bottom drops out, we’re not yelling at them or fixing them, just supporting them. When one of my students worried that he wouldn’t be able to keep up his improved work, I told him: “My hand is on your back. I’m not pushing you. I’m just making sure you don’t turn around.”
The high schools in my area are about 50% white and 50% everybody else, from African-American to African, to Chinese and Southeast Asian. Socioeconomically, the majority of the students receive either free or reduced lunch, and many come from single parent homes with one wage earner. In my years as a fellow, I have supported 73 students.
I see my “encore” work as an opportunity to meld my life experience and knowledge of public policy with my commitment to service. Where once I saw the value of partisan politics to policymaking, I now focus on working toward solutions in areas of real consequence, areas that politics and partisanship tend to obscure.
It turns out that my age – I’m 51 – was a bigger problem for me than anyone else. For the first month, I was actually apologetic, telling students, “Sorry, you’re stuck with the old guy.”
The reality is that, with the level of life experience that’s underneath us, older adults offer the kids a wonderful opportunity that they are lacking. For many, their families are so disconnected that there might not be an older adult or grandparents nearby. If they’re lucky, kids will connect with a teacher, or with me, reminding me that I did the same as a kid with neighborhood elders that I could talk to, who watched out for me.
It’s rewarding to see teens I’ve worked with gain academically and improve their attendance. Still, it was a tough financial decision to pursue this work. One appealing bonus was a $5500 education award for fellows who stay at least two years. I’m using mine to pursue a certificate as an English as a Second Language teacher.
It’s disheartening that there isn’t more funding so more people can do what I’m doing. The value of the Promise Fellow program is the fact I’m not a teacher, guidance counselor or a psychiatrist. I’m standing in the gap between all of them. Hopefully, as they enter their young adulthood, my students will carry a memory of some old guy they talked to in high school, someone who cared, someone like me.
The Promise Fellows program is available in Minnesota and Massachusetts. It was created in the 1990s by The Corporation for National and Community Service and America’s Promise Alliance to deliver on five promises that young people need to thrive and succeed: Caring Adults, Safe Places, A Healthy Start, An Effective Education & The Opportunity to Serve.