How Helping Children Resulted In My Failure

It has been many months since I’ve written a blog post as I have been dealing with some life changing events. I wanted to take this opportunity to share with you the lessons that I learned from my experience.

You may or may not know that I have always had a passion for two things: the arts and working with children, so it seemed like a natural fit to start my own arts camp, which I did, in 2008. Prior to this I worked for a non-profit arts organization that gave high quality arts programming to inner city children in at risk communities. I did this work for over 5 years and developed a strong connection to the kids in our programs.

I saw so much potential in those children. I saw how much they needed help and support to be able to live the life they were capable of living. They were stuck in a trap that for many of them consisted of poor parenting, neighbourhoods riddled with crime and drugs and sub-par learning environments. Many were more often invalidated and criticized than loved and supported. I have always known that when children are successful the world is successful, so I was compelled to help.

I created my own charitable organization whose initial purpose was to provide a summer arts camp taught by professional artists, actors, musicians and choreographers to low-income kids. The kids would be accepted into the program based on financial need and we would fund it largely through donations.

Everyone loved the idea and we even got a government grant to help get us started. It was a very exciting time and the first few years of the program garnered amazing results.

The kids were …

  • Learning new artistic skills
  • Making new friends
  • Receiving support and encouragement from positive role models
  • Building confidence through performing in showcases
  • Trying new things
  • And much more

It really was wonderful!

However, there was a problem. The organization was not sustaining itself. From a purely business perspective there was more money going out than money coming in. It was basic math and I refused to confront it.

In the moment, helping those kids was more important than positive cash flow and even my own salary. I knew they needed support, and from my viewpoint that took priority over running a financially thriving organization.

Several years continued and the financial situation got worse, to the point that I had no choice but to sell my home so the organization could be relieved of most of its debt. It was a really tough pill to swallow, but it afforded me the opportunity to learn some extremely valuable lessons that I otherwise might not have discovered.

LESSON #1 – You have to help yourself before you can help others.

There is a saying, “God helps those who help themselves.” Well, I learned this the hard way. I found that the less I helped myself and my organization to become financially strong the less responsibility I was taking for the situation and the worse it got. No amount of hoping or praying improved my condition. It was a dwindling spiral that eventually caved in on me.

If you’ve ever travelled on an airplane, you know that part of the safety instructions are to put your own oxygen mask on first before assisting others. I had heard this announcement on dozens of flights over the years, but clearly I didn’t get the message. I hope you do.

LESSON #2 – Don’t give without receiving something in exchange.

My intention was totally honourable – to help children who didn’t have the opportunities that others from more affluent families did.

But what was I really teaching them by giving them something for nothing?

  1. That they are the effect of their environment and aren’t powerful enough to improve their situation?
  1. That when you don’t have employment or make very little money you should be given support without having to produce any kind of result?
  1. That they have to rely on others to survive and aren’t able enough to take care of themselves?

The truth is, the families I’ve worked with for the past ten years are so incredibly smart, tenacious and talented – they are able to bring about any result they want in their life.

By giving them an abundance of opportunity through free programs and services without expecting anything in return I was effectively enabling them to remain in the condition they were in.

How do I know this is true? The results.

While there is no question that the children who worked with me and my staff developed amazing artistic and leadership skills and were loved and cared for as though they were our own children, they are undoubtedly still in the same environments and dealing with the same problems as before they attended my program.

There is a Chinese Proverb that says “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” What I realize now is that I was feeding those kids and their families for a day.

I am not saying if there is a natural disaster that the Red Cross shouldn’t come in and provide immediate relief to anyone who needs it. Of course they should! What I am saying is that when you reward anything that is non-optimal you get more of what is non-optimal.

LESSON #3 – Bringing results is the key to success in life.

We live in a tough universe and only the strong survive. Having what you want in life requires bringing a result. It is that simple.

Having things handed to you doesn’t allow you to develop the skills you need to survive in this world. This applies whether you are rich or poor. Eventually receiving without giving will bring problems. We know this because the challenges found in low-income communities including drugs, violence and other unethical behaviour mirrors what happens in other socio-economic classes.

What is the common denominator where these problems exist?…Being given things without giving back in return.

I have heard stories from my camp colleagues about very wealthy families whose children attend their camps and are extremely challenging to deal with because they expect everything to be done for them and are unwilling to lift a finger to contribute.

What will their fate be as an adult?

Why My Story Matters

I’m sharing my story as I hope it will serve as a wake up call to anyone who wants to make a real difference in this world.

If you work in the charitable sector, please consider what you are really teaching the groups you are serving by offering them free services.

If you are a parent, expect more from your kids in terms of contributing to the family.

If anything in your life is less than exactly the way you want it to be please consider how able you are to bring whatever result you wish – expect more from yourself.

And if you are one of the thousands of kids who I have worked with over the last 18 years, I am sorry I didn’t teach you ALL that I should have. I hope this post serves as a step to righting that wrong.

Children are the future and it is our duty as educators, parents and leadership professionals to equip our children with EVERYTHING they will need to lead happy, successful and productive lives. The future of our world depends on it.