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Project Northstar connected each kid to a mentor who met with the child at least once weekly, one-on-one, for an entire year (and often for many years) to help with homework, and more importantly to build a relationship with an adult in the community. These relationships became lifelines for many children, and helped them to develop the resources they needed to succeed in schools, develop goals for themselves, and ultimately find paths out of the shelter. It was like Big Brother/Big Sister, except that the tutoring sessions were held on a regular day and time each week, and school buses were provided by the organization to pick up the kids and take them to the tutoring session. The group also provided books, pencils, and other supplies the kids needed -- because so often children in shelters are forced to do without the basic necessities in school. We also provided a hot meal to the kids during the tutoring session.
I was very saddened to learn this week that because of the troubled economy, Project Northstar's funding stream has collapsed and the organization shut its doors after more than 15 years in operation. It's just so sad that as the economy worsens, those who need support most are not getting it... and now the staff members of this organization (and many like it, I'm sure) are losing their incomes and health insurance, when they were already making do with so little.
Because of my involvement with Project Northstar, I was inspired to go back to school to earn a Masters in Social Work. I know many other volunteers decided to pursue careers in helping professions as a result of their experience with this group. I hope that this group and others like it can be revived through service grants from the Obama Administration. Volunteers are the backbone of these programs, but money is needed to provide kids with the basic necessities. Kids can't learn without proper nutrition, school supplies, eyeglasses, etc. And when these are provided in the context of a supportive, nurturing, mentoring relationship, it makes all the difference -- for the children AND the volunteers.
It does leave us with one important lesson, though -- great ideas are one thing, but there must be political will to implement them. If the NII idea takes hold, it would need some kind of built in process by which results would be reported to the various stake holders, including to Congress AND to the rest of us via a forum like this, so that we can make sure that good ideas actually get implemented.
On the other hand, I do believe that the economy would be in even worse shape if we let these companies go belly up. Further, sacrificing the Big Three automakers would mean permanently moving the U.S. out of that sector of industry. I think a better idea would be to stipulate that any loans we make be used to spur innovation in automotive technology. Use the cash to move American automakers to the forefront of green energy research and design efforts. This crisis represents a HUGE opportunity: if investments are made in developing green technology AND in providing tax credits for buyers -- that is, if the American equivalent of a Prius was made affordable to ordinary American citizens -- we would boost the economy, bolster our national security (by reducing dependence on foreign oil), and address the climate change head-on. At the same time, we would also reestablish our position as a global leader in innovation.
It is much cheaper in the medium- and long-term for society to cover everyone, with a focus on preventative care and screenings to catch diseases early -- when they are cheaper to treat. If everyone is covered, hospitals and insurance companies don't have to jack up the prices on services to the healthy people to offset the unpaid bills of those who can't afford -- or simply aren't eligible for -- private health insurance.
By the way, I would also argue that it is more ethical to make sure that people get basic health care. But if it's pure economic self-interest that drives you, the numbers clearly support development of some kind of universal health care system that does NOT exclude people who are living with illnesses and disabilities.
I am also deeply concerned about the privatization trends in recent health care policies. Several recent studies have shown that the switch to private insurers for Medicare has resulted in increased costs with no gain -- or even losses -- in coverage. Rather than lining the pockets of private insurance company CEOs, we need to find a way to cut costs while increasing access to quality health care (including preventative medicine and prescription drugs).