Originally posted in the St. Helena Star on December 30, 2013.
The laughter and innocence of a young person can do wonders to lighten the mood of a military veteran recovering from combat-related stress disorders. And what better way to teach kids about veterans than by putting them in a room together?
That’s the concept behind one of the most successful projects undertaken by the Napa Valley Youth Advocacy Center, an organization founded by Tom Amato to promote young people’s mental and emotional well-being.
NVYAC’s core philosophy is that kids can find what they’re looking for — identify, purpose and a sense that they’re valued — by making a difference in someone else’s life.
The first time Jazmin Escobedo and Jacky Gonzalez, then eighth-graders, went to the Pathway Home, a nonprofit based at the Yountville Veterans Home that helps traumatized soldiers, they were nervously expecting to sit through a meal with a bunch of seniors and chalk up some required community service hours.
When they arrived, they found out that a lot of the veterans were younger than their parents, and easy to relate to.
When they left, they were asking Amato when they could go back.
After almost three years of regular visits to the Vets Home, Escobedo and Gonzalez, now high school sophomores, say they’ve forgotten all about their community service hours.
Now they’re excited about deepening their understanding of veterans, like when they met a service dog who’s trained to wake up his owner from trauma-induced nightmares. The students learned that yes, vets are heroes, but they’re also humans just like the rest of us, with unique strengths, flaws and interests.
Just chatting about sports and enjoying a meal with a young person can cheer up a veteran and relieve them from the weight of their most painful memories, at least for a little while.
Meanwhile, the vets are happy to draw on their personal experiences to advise kids to focus on their goals and keep a positive attitude.
The collaboration with the Pathway Home project is just one of the ways the NVYAC, which evolved from the old Angwin Teen Center, is teaching kids the value of service and compassion. At Rianda House kids teach seniors how to use cell phones, and every Tuesday kids prepare meals for cancer patients as part of the “Food of Love” collaboration with the Martin-O’Neil Cancer Center at St. Helena Hospital.
Connecting kids with veterans is an example of how Amato builds reciprocal relationships that benefit everybody, unlike a lot of traditional mentoring programs that are all about an adult helping a kid.
During more than 40 years as an educator, Amato said he’s learned how important it is to understand young people on their own terms. When he started mentoring the youth who used to hang out in front of the Carnegie Building, he looked past the tattoos, body piercings and misanthropy and found a group of smart, talented young people who just felt misunderstood.
He’s learned that at-risk behavior starts in elementary school, when kids who lack certain academic skills start to feel there’s something wrong with them.
If their needs aren’t accommodated by the time they get to junior high, they’re all too likely to start checking out of the educational system and experimenting with drugs, sex and other “at-risk” behaviors. They feel like they can study and fail, or not study and fail. So why study?
By recognizing those symptoms early, Amato said he believes our community can give kids a sense of purpose and confidence by teaching them the value of serving others. Along the way, they learn to relate to people who are very different from them, whether they’re military veterans, seniors or cancer patients.
We’d love to see Amato take the logical next step of encouraging the NVYAC’s youth volunteers to mentor their peers and become ambassadors of service and compassion.
It would be even better if the rest of the community could take Amato’s message to heart by embracing troubled youth, teaching them the value of service, and realizing that we can learn as much from them as they can from us.