Thank you, Nick, for that kind introduction – and congratulations on being named Youth of the Year. It’s a special privilege to share the stage with such an extraordinary young man this afternoon – and an honor to welcome you and so many other aspiring leaders, determined advocates, and distinguished guests here to our nation’s capital.
I know you’ve had a remarkable – and very busy – week so far, and I’d like to thank the Boys and Girls Clubs of America – particularly President Clark and Chairman Gidwitz – along with Tim Davis, President and CEO of the Close Up Foundation, and Board Chair Joel Jankowsky – for organizing this unique program, working to educate young people about the importance of civic participation; and helping inspire generations of children to pursue their dreams and reach their full potential.
Through initiatives like Keystone, Torch Club, and Project Learn – and as a result of this organization’s partnerships with Americorps and the U.S. Military – Boys and Girls Clubs nationwide have worked, for more than a century and a half, to instill positive values, to encourage a passion for lifelong learning, and to set high expectations for the future leaders who – before you know it – will take the reins of government and the private sector. Over the years, you’ve grown from a small group of concerned – but hopeful – activists into a national organization, boasting nearly 4,000 clubs that serve more than 4 million kids across the country. Along the way, you’ve engaged thousands of mentors and community leaders in fostering creativity, inclusiveness, and the drive to succeed among countless children – particularly those who are at risk or in need. And today – as I look out at the bright faces in this crowd – it’s easy to see that this work is having a tremendous impact.
No one understands this better than Nick and his peers. As members of military-connected families, each of these young men and women has been asked to make great sacrifices. In many cases, you’ve had to contend with long deployments, frequent moves – to new cities throughout the country, and even around the world – and all of the other stresses and difficulties that come with having a parent or relative serving in uniform, often in harm’s way.
Yet every one of you has responded to these challenges with maturity, courage, and tremendous strength. You’ve earned the respect of your mentors, the admiration of your peers, and the sincere thanks of a grateful nation. And – in the community of friends and allies who are here with you today – you’ve found a strong and vibrant network of supporters, all of whom are ready and eager to stand with you – no matter what.
As Nick said upon receiving the Youth of the Year Award, “the [Boys and Girls] Club is responsible for some of the greatest lessons and inspirations of [his] life.” Thanks to your exemplary work – and the generous contributions of thousands of adults who have committed to donating their time – and giving of their talents – this organization has become a powerful force for change and progress.
And as we gather in Washington this afternoon – at a time when so many of America’s youth face significant obstacles and unprecedented barriers to success – I believe the need for positive and effective mentors like so many of the people in this room could hardly be more clear – and the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of our kids could not be greater.
Each year, more than a million students drop out of high schools across the country. Far too many start down the wrong path – turning to violence, criminal behavior, or substance abuse – and just over 2 million are arrested. More than 15 million kids are left unsupervised between the hours of 3:00 and 7:00 p.m., when juvenile crime is at its peak. A third of all children, and half of all low income youth, fail to graduate from high school on time. And fully one in four violent crime victims known to law enforcement officials are children.
Of course, many of you are here today because you understand these problems. You’ve heard these alarming statistics. You’re familiar with the heartbreaking stories. And many of you have witnessed this harsh reality firsthand, in your own neighborhoods and schools.
Most importantly, you understand that each of us has a responsibility to confront these challenges – which, in many places, have reached crisis levels. And you are leading the way in responding – not with despair, but with resolve.
By serving as advocates and role models, the mentors in – and far beyond – this room have helped to teach invaluable lessons, to assist young people in developing the skills they need for future success, and to instill a sense of self-worth and self-respect. They’ve led by example, guiding and reinforcing our children as they set – and achieve – goals, boosting their confidence, rewarding good behavior, and encouraging academic excellence. And they’ve had a lasting impact that will continue to guide the actions, inform the choices, and shape the paths our children take for years to come.
In all of this work, Boys and Girls Clubs have sent a powerful message: that, in this country, we will never waver in our determination to ensure that our kids have the tools and resources they need to shape a positive future. We will empower them in every way we can. We will challenge them to make good decisions. And we will work to inspire each of them, in turn, to live out these values – and take up these essential efforts – in the lives they will lead and the careers they will build.
The importance of this work is difficult to overstate. Studies have consistently shown that, through stable personal engagement, mentored children are more likely to grow and mature into confident and responsible young adults. In fact, the Harris Survey found that 90 percent of Boys and Girls Club alumni graduated from high school. More than half of those interviewed even said that the Clubs saved their lives.
And – as I’m sure all of us can say from personal experience – perhaps the strongest argument for mentoring – and its greatest joy – is that the benefits run both ways. During my tenure as United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, my staff and I “adopted” an elementary school in a low-income, predominantly African-American part of the city. I was thrilled to have the chance to work with these students on a regular basis – getting to know them and becoming invested in their futures. My colleagues and I found a remarkable and rewarding sense of purpose in the relationships we developed. As a result, I am proud to say that I know well – and have seen firsthand – that mentoring changes lives. And not just for our young people.
That’s one of many reasons why I’ve been honored to join President Obama, the First Lady, and others throughout the Administration in strongly supporting mentoring programs. I’m proud of the great strides we’ve taken in bringing a diverse group of stakeholders – including federal officials, state and local partners, community organizations, and leaders like Boys and Girls Club members – together to discuss how mentors can improve educational outcomes and reduce juvenile delinquency. And I believe there’s good reason to be optimistic about the continued progress we’ll achieve through the work of this organization, and others; through initiatives like the First Lady’s “Corporate Mentoring Challenge;” and in the important, ongoing work that’s become – and will remain – a Justice Department priority.
Over the last three years, my colleagues and I have advanced strong – and, in some cases, historic – efforts to increasing federal assistance for mentoring initiatives and exploring evidence-based strategies for reducing children’s exposure to violence in our communities. Since 1994, the Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has awarded more than $480 million to support mentoring programs that reduce delinquency, deter violent gang participation, and lower school dropout rates.
In 2010, we launched the landmark Defending Childhood Initiative to complement this work, and to help leverage precious resources in order to better understand – and eradicate – youth violence. We’re now partnering with a wide range of allies – across the federal government, and far beyond – to expand the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention from six to ten cities across the country. And in March, we introduced a new $20 million grant solicitation for research proposals that can give us a better sense of which programs are most effective.
Last October, we also announced a series of grants, totaling more than $15 million, for national organizations – including the Boys and Girls Clubs of America – that offer mentoring programs specifically for young people like many of you, who have a parent in the armed forces. These funds help support programs like the one that brought you to Washington this week. And they underscore the Justice Department’s – and this Administration’s – dedication to standing shoulder-to-shoulder with service members and their families, especially in times of need.
As we look toward the future, I’m confident that this assistance will continue to help kids of military service members develop resiliency skills, become teen leaders, and connect with other military families. It will help us to make good on our commitment to stand with those who have served – and are still serving – our nation in uniform. And it will offer a chance to strengthen the Blue Star families that have sacrificed so much to keep this country safe.
At the same time, there can be little doubt that the hardest work is far from over. For each of the remarkable, accomplished, and engaged young people in this room today, there are far too many others – in big cities and small towns across the country – who are in desperate need of our help. Reaching every last one of them will demand that we summon our best efforts, marshal every resource, and act – with optimism, and without delay – to engage even more new partners and supporters in the service of this cause.
I recognize that this will not be – and has never been – easy. But as I look out over this crowd – of kids and passionate advocates alike – all of whom understand exactly what we’re up against, and have proven their dedication to seizing the opportunities before us – I can’t help but feel confident about our capacity to build on the momentum that you’ve helped to create. And I am eager to see where each of you will help to lead us from here.
As you continue this work, know that you will always have a strong supporter, and a good friend, in this Attorney General – as well as President Obama and the First Lady. On behalf of them – and the rest of our colleagues – we are proud, and fortunate, to count each of you as a partner. Keep up the great work – and thank you all.