Rural Youth Workers Suppress Yawning Gaps

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In many rural areas, the old adage that idle hands are the devil’s playground is a fact of life.

Alcohol and drug abuse are common, poverty is rampant, healthcare is often scarce, wages for the few available jobs are generally lower than in the cities, and technology is often less accessible.

These factors make it difficult to establish and maintain youth development programs. Simply getting youths to and from program sites is probably the biggest obstacle of all.

Alcohol and drugs are particularly popular among rural teens “because they don’t have anything else to do,” said Kathleen Belanger, director of the Child Welfare Professional Development Project at the Steven F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. “Recreation is extremely limited.”

Data about high-risk behavior by rural youth compared with urban youth are mixed.

A 2000 report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse said that when compared with their urban peers, rural eighth-graders are 34 percent more likely to smoke marijuana, 29 percent more likely to drink alcohol, 70 percent more likely to have ever been drunk, more than twice as likely to smoke cigarettes and nearly five times as likely to use smokeless tobacco.

However, the 2000 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administra- tion, said that 18.8 percent of youth (ages 12 to 17) in metropolitan areas had tried drugs in the past year, compared with 18.2 percent in completely rural areas.

The economics of rural life also take a toll. According to the Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI), the median household income in rural areas in 1997 was $30,057, about $9,300 less than the median income in metropolitan areas. Rural workers are also more likely to earn the minimum wage, although a 1999 U.S. Department of Agriculture study estimated it costs about 16 percent less to live in rural areas.

As for education, 23.5 percent of rural people older than 18 lacked a high school diploma in 1997, compared with 17.4 percent in metro areas, RUPRI says.

It’s little surprise, then, that young people routinely leave rural areas. “High school kids are looking at, ‘How fast I can get out of this hick town?’” said Edd Diden, principal of Central High School in Wartburg, Tenn. “We want to prevent our best and brightest from leaving and never coming back.”

One of the biggest obstacles to developing an adequate youth-development program in rural areas is the lack of people who have the skills to organize and operate a program, Belanger said. Successful programs need leaders with more than good intentions.

“You don’t have [enough] people with the expertise. If you don’t have the people, how do you get the funding?” Belanger asked.

Transportation poses another major obstacle. Homes and town centers are miles apart, there is little if any public transportation, and some families live miles from the nearest paved road.

But “necessity is the mother of invention,” Belanger said. “There are wonderful examples of brilliant, creative solutions.”
Following are some of those solutions.


The Center for Rural Family Development
Rt. 3, Box 160-A
Eutaw, AL 35462
(205) 372-0843

An abiding faith that God will provide, especially when the government won’t, has helped the Johnson Hill United Methodist Church serve the needs of poor children in Union, Ala., for three decades.

The 13-member church runs the Center for Rural Family Development, a separate entity that provides social services geared mainly toward youth in the western Alabama town.

What the center lacks in money it makes up for in human resources through a network of volunteers
and donors who make the center their mission.

“Most people realize we have a love of Christ and a love for God’s people,” said the Rev. Mary Floyd, church pastor and center director.

The center traces its roots to 1972, when teacher and church member Amanda S. Burton began running a six-week summer enrichment program at the church for local kids. An after-school program was added in 1995, marking the start of the year-round center.

Burton, now in her mid-90s, still visits the center on occasion.

Housed on church property, the three-room stand-alone center was built by volunteers.

The center is so successful at making the most from meager resources that staff routinely field queries from agencies throughout the state trying to learn how such a small agency with little steady income can thrive. It scrapes by on a budget of about $15,000 and gets support from other United Methodist churches.

“You would think there’s some big group with a whole lot going on. It’s not. We’re just well-organized,” said volunteer youth worker Raymond Austin.

The center now offers health information and screening, as well as job training.

“We sort of operate as a family, life and resources center, without the money,” Austin said.

The center serves about 90 children ages 6 to 18 in the summer and about 35 kids a week the rest of the year. It received $10,000 from the Greene County school system in 2001-02 for working with disadvantaged youth.

Greene County certainly needs the help. According to the U.S. Census, in 1997 Greene County had the lowest median income ($17,602) among Alabama’s 67 counties, and the second highest percentage (44.6) of people under 18 living in poverty. Eighty percent of its approximately 10,000 residents are black.

Austin knows the effects of a budget crunch. He was a paid staff member until the state continuing education grant subsidizing his salary expired in 2001. After three years with the center, he said he just couldn’t disappear with his paycheck.

“I am obligated to go down and help with the tutorial program,” he said, although he does not work at the center full time anymore. He has a part-time job at a local radio station, and the church occasionally pays him a $200 stipend.

The center relies on about 11 volunteers to run its after-school programs. Two high school students are paid stipends of $75 a week to help tutor the younger children.

The center has found its own solution to the rural transportation woes. Most of the children live within two miles of the center or in nearby Eutaw. In the summer, kids are dropped off at the center in the morning by Greene County school buses (courtesy of the school district), then bused to the junior high for free lunches through the federal Department of Agriculture extended meal program.

During the school year, the school bus drops kids at the center, where they can work on the computers, do their homework or participate in arts and crafts and other enrichment programs. Students who are bused to school have to find their own transportation home.

The center is always on the prowl for other opportunities. Tuskegee University donated seeds to grow collard greens for a gardening and nutrition class. Another United Methodist church donated 23 computers.

“The only way we could survive is to develop partnerships or collaborations,” Austin said. “We have a lot of links out there.”


Owyhee Learning Center
514 Second St.
Owyhee, NV 89832
(775) 757-3240

Nowhere is the geographical isolation that plagues many rural areas more apparent than in the West, where small bergs may be 100 miles from the nearest town center – posing special problems for communities trying to develop youth programs.The Duck Valley reservation is a prime example. The Shoshone-Paiute reservation encompasses nearly 290,000 acres astride the Nevada-Idaho border. It is big, and it is isolated. Some children live up to seven miles from the combined school in the reservation’s town center.

It is also poor. According to the 2000 census, the median household income on the reservation was nearly $19,000 below the national median. About 32 percent of the reservation’s 1,265 people were below the poverty level, compared with 12.4 percent nationally.

Its geographic barriers notwithstanding, the reservation has housed a youth learning center for three years, located in a home formerly owned by the Indian Health Service to house employees. The center provides the tutoring and other youth-related programs that used to be offered at different sites in the reservation’s small town center of Owyhee.

After school, kids who can walk or find rides home can go to the center for tutoring and help with their homework. AmeriCorps volunteers help run the center.

Students can also socialize, play sports, use one of several computers and occasionally learn more about their Indian culture from tribal elders through beadwork or language instruction.

In the summer, when youth have no school and few work opportunities, the center becomes more than a homework shop. It expands its hours and activities to include team sports, health presentations, more cultural and heritage workshops and special events such as a youth rodeo.

Unfortunately, the center does not own a van. Youth who want to take part need to get their own transportation. The center serves up to 20 youths a day during the summer.

A small group of youths and volunteers helps make the summer program a success.

“Everybody works together to get things done,” said Carol Couchum, a business and computer teacher at the school. She and other adults form a volunteer committee that helps plan summer activities.

But volunteers alone are not enough to keep the center open. The reservation relies on grants and other assistance from Save the Children. While best known for its international efforts, the Westport, Conn.-based organization is helping communities in the West establish self-sustaining youth programs. The agency serves 26 predominantly Hispanic and Indian communities through its Western area office, covering Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and North Dakota.

It also has programs in the Appalachia region, the Southeast and numerous urban areas.

There is no single blueprint for establishing one of the youth programs, although there are focus areas such as literacy and drug abuse prevention, said Terry Russell, Save the Children’s acting vice president for U.S. programs. Save the Children taps local nonprofit organizations, including schools, to serve as community partners and to develop and oversee the programs locally. The organization also uses AmeriCorps and VISTA workers.

Save the Children’s focus on existing resources includes the communities’ youth. One program supports small teams of youth interns to plan and provide community services. The interns, ages 14 to 18, receive $1,000 each from Save the Children, plus any additional pay the local partnering organization is willing to give.

On the Duck Valley reservation, a team of four interns hosted and ran most of the activities at the learning center last summer, including overnight camping trips. They also helped plan the activities, before the volunteer committee (the community partner) pitched its grant proposal to Save the Children in 2001. The committee is awaiting word on its summer 2003 proposal.

Although local merchants and reservation residents contribute, Save the Children provides the core financial support for the Duck Valley youth center, Couchum said. “Without them, we would not have a lot of things in our community,” she said.

The organization has been involved with the reservation for more than 25 years.

“Their community is probably the one that has done the most, in terms of organizing themselves,” said Clarence Hogue Jr., a Save the Children field manager based in Phoenix.

At Home

Boy Scouts of America
Lone Scout Program
1325 W. Walnut Hill Lane
Irving, TX 75038

The Morgan boys may live in the sticks, but they don’t have far to go for their weekly Boy Scout troop meeting.

Each Tuesday at 5 p.m., Aaron, Kyle and Matthew put on their uniforms, gather in their living room or on their deck and get started.

The Morgan boys are all Lone Boy Scouts, a Boy Scouts of America (BSA) program established for youth who live far from an established troop or who move a lot.

“It’s an enhancement for those who, for whatever reason, are not able to join a traditional program,” said Renee Fairrer, associate director of marketing and communications for the BSA, headquartered in Irving, Texas.

The Lone Scout program was established in 1915, five years after the BSA was incorporated, and merged with the BSA in 1924. Boys sign up for the program through a local council and pay the same $7 annual fee that all scouts pay.

Last year, 331 Lone Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts were registered in the United States. A small number were living overseas.

The largest concentration is in the Western states, where about 61 Lone Boy Scouts (ages 11 to 18) lived as of August. The Southern region had the most Lone Cub Scouts (ages 8 to 10), with 50.

In addition to isolated scouts, the program is open to home-schooled boys and others who do not attend school. One Lone Scout travels year-round with his parents as part of their acting troupe. The boy, Zephyr Goza, has designed his own website chronicling his adventures around the nation (

Lone Scouts must meet the same requirements as traditional Boy Scouts to advance through the ranks. Their awards are generally handed out during special meetings with a traditional troop or a meeting of other Lone Scouts.

The Morgans live 10 miles from Edgewood, a town of about 1,200 people 90 minutes east of Dallas. Although there is a troop in Edgewood, the boys qualified for the Lone Scout program because they are schooled at home.

“We live out here in no-man’s land,” said Aaron, 12, a Tenderfoot. “We couldn’t find a good troop that was near enough and organized well.”

The boys’ mother, Marcy, found out about the program on the Internet after Kyle said he wanted to become an Eagle Scout. At 14, Kyle is the oldest of the three. Matthew is 11.

“I really like the fact that with Scouts these boys are encouraged to go it themselves and to develop their leadership skills,” said Marcy. “It’s got good moral values and it doesn’t go against anything we believe in.”

Not being a part of a larger troop has disadvantages, particularly for those who do not have siblings like the Morgans. Some outdoor activities are better with more people around, and Scout troops offer an opportunity for structured socializing out of school.

But being a Lone Scout also has advantages.

“You can do activities around your schedule,” said Kyle, who organizes the weekly meetings in his house. The BSA provides instruction and books for Lone Scouts to help run meetings.

All Lone Scouts have a “friend and counselor” who helps guide the boys through advancement. The counselor is usually a parent, but can be a friend or neighbor. Marcy and husband James fill that role for their sons.

Other Lone Scouts connect with each other through the Internet and ham radio.

“Although not part of a regular outfit, they still are able to stay connected,” Fairrer said.

While the number of Lone Scouts nationwide may seem low, the program has been steadily used since it was established, Fairrer said. She doesn’t expect that to change.

“Most parents know and understand if they [their children] don’t focus on something good and positive, they will focus on something negative,” she said.

School-Based Network

Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union
21st Century Community
Learning Center
Eileen Boland, Director
P.O. Box 338
Hardwick, VT 05843
(802) 472-3247

As an after-school coordinator in northeastern Vermont, Eileen M. Boland tries to use the advantages of rural life to overcome its disadvantages.

“The challenges are certainly different from urban areas, but the assets are different, too,” Boland said. “People look out for one another; they know each other’s children.”

Much of the sense of community comes from the towns’ schools. Each town has its own school system, sets its own budget and levies taxes through town meetings. Because in many small towns all the grades are in a single building, that facility gets a lot of attention and becomes more than just a school.

“The schools are the resource for the area,” said Boland, who works for the Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union in Hardwick.

Orleans Southwest is one of 62 governmental unions or districts across the state that oversee the programs of several independent local districts that are grouped by geography. The unions primarily provide supervisory and administrative services.

Boland is director of the after-school programs for all seven schools in the Orleans union, covering four counties. Her position is funded through a three-year, $1.2 million federal 21st Century Community Learning Center grant. There are also five site coordinators.

The local school districts provide in-kind services within the schools. Boland also taps federal Medicare and Title I education funding, which are disbursed to the states to help poor children.

Five of Boland’s after-school programs serve students from kindergarten through grade six, although some programs do not serve the full grade range. About one-third of the union’s K-6 students participate, she said.

After-school programs for the younger students include arts and crafts, cooking, cultural lessons and activities, tutoring and computer labs. Classes typically run four days a week from about 2:30 to 4:30.

She runs a sixth program, for middle and high schoolers, but is having a hard time holding their attention. Activities include tutoring, team sports, chess and computers. “It’s been really tough to engage these kids,” Boland said.

Boland bought mountain bikes for small-group trips, and planned a series of “coffeehouse” evenings at the Hazen Union school in Hardwick, which serves as the high school for several communities. She also ran a summer adventure course that included rope-climbing and other physical challenges, and she wants to offer more recreational alternatives.

“One of the assets of this area is the stunningly beautiful environment,” she said.

Some of the older youth worked as counselors and tutors for a summer program that served about 300 grade schoolers, getting paid $7 an hour. The summer program included history lessons, pioneer days, horseback riding, hiking and water activities. Cooking classes were the most popular, Boland said.

She plans a youth conference to find out what the older youth would like in an after-school program. She particularly wants to encourage those kids who are not overly interested in extracurricular activities to attend.

“The kids who are already involved are really busy. They do everything,” Boland said. “We’re really trying to reach those kids who aren’t involved in anything.”

As in many rural areas, “transportation is a killer,” Boland said. Aside from the distance problem typical in rural areas, she has to deal with Vermont’s harsh winters and unpaved roads. “In the winter you don’t just need a car, you need a good car,” Boland said.

Getting the kids to the traditional after-school programs is a cinch: They’re already there. Getting them home is another matter.

The union contracts with a bus company for some activities. But to save money, Boland sometimes requires youths to find their own transportation to activities that occur away from the schools, later in the evening or in the summer. That reduces participation.