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Case Study: Kids at Hope

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More than just a theory, Kids at Hope became a powerful model for change with Social Venture Partners Arizona (SVPAZ)’s time, talent and funding.

The Challenge

Before SVPAZ’s support, Rick Miller, founder and president of Kids at Hope (KAH), had a promising—but untested—belief that “kids at risk” needed a new strategy to succeed. But without a track record, traditional funding sources were unwilling in invest.

The Scenario

According to Gallup research, just half of American kids in grades 5 through 12 who have been surveyed are hopeful. That means 50 percent are struggling, don’t have goals or have given up. Many adults, too, have given up on groups of children.

Miller rallied a group of youth development practitioners and educators who had expressed concern about the characterization of children as “at risk,” fearing that educators, law enforcement officials and society at large may be unwittingly stereotyping and undervaluing an entire generation.

The Solutions

With the multidimensional resources—financial, strategic and technical—that SVPAZ provided during its five-year engagement, Miller was able to launch Kids at Hope. KAH passionately advocates for the influential role adults can play in a more hopeful future for kids, strengthening families, communities and country.

     A Powerful Paradigm Shift. Instead of focusing on the negatives that confront children, Kids at Hope focuses on modeling and teaching hope, a pioneering approach in the category. “We used to think hope was a feeling,” Miller explains. “But it’s actually a skill you can teach, like reading, writing or arithmetic. In hopeless families, schools or communities, kids observe and model that. In optimistic settings, kids grow up to be hopeful. Hope creates powerful neural pathways that help the mind to focus on goals and the personal energy required to achieve success.”

     No Child Left Behind. Kids at Hope takes a 100-percent success stance, believing all kids, without exception, can triumph. “The expression ‘youth at risk’ became a convenient excuse as to why some kids struggle,” says Miller. “Kids are at risk for all types of reasons, including cognitive challenges, alcohol or drug abuse, poverty or frequently moving. We spend an enormous amount of time identifying risk factors and funders responded to that terminology. But plenty of kids succeed in spite of these factors. I wanted to look at immunity versus the disease.”

     Teaching Time Travel. “The idea of mental time travel—the ability of the brain to forecast its future—is transformational,” Miller says. “It’s easy to search for memories of past success or failure; that’s hardwired in our brains. But when we talk about a positive future, we have to introduce the ‘software’ to kids. Hope is the software.” This is an active exercise. Questions in four key areas: home and family; education and career; community and service; and hobbies and recreation are the way in, lighting up the brain’s neurons and pathways. If done correctly, thoughts are translated into hope and hope is generative.

     Continued Research. Two decades ago of groundbreaking research on resiliency helped usher in a new focus away from pathology and negativity to optimism and hope. Gallup Poll researchers are taking up the mantle with a 10-year study on kids and hope. “The science shows that hope trumps risk,” says Miller. “Whether it’s suicidal tendencies or aimlessness, hope and engagement are the antidotes.”

The Outcomes

Since its debut in 2000, Kids at Hope has had numerous achievements:

  • Served 500,000 children
  • Operates in 18 states
  • Recognized by the American Academy of Pediatrics as one of four initiatives in the U.S. that effectively uses positive youth development to transform families, schools and communities
  • Arizona Supreme Court adopted KAH principles statewide to improve juvenile justice system outcomes

Over the years, Miller has learned what it takes to become a “social entrepreneur.” He says, “We wouldn’t exist without Social Venture Partners Arizona. Like a parent, they helped raise us.”

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