Guest Column
Julie Koriakin, executive director
Cowart Family Ashford Dunwoody YMCA

On Monday evening, March 16, the Sandy Springs Civic Roundtable will host its third and final program for the year. The topic is our community’s role in preparing our youth — tomorrow’s citizens — today.

Sandy Springs Municipal Judge Jim Anderson and I will present a program with contrasting perspectives. Jim will speak about his experiences with children and adolescents through the lens of his courtroom — how things can and do go wrong. I will focus on how things can and do go right.

As the executive director of the Cowart Family Ashford Dunwoody YMCA, which serves more than 13,000 people in Sandy Springs and adjacent communities, I manage 300 staff and volunteers annually to help build strong kids and strong families. I’ve worked with many children the past 17 years. As a parent and an educator, I know how challenging it is to raise children who will become productive adults.

For more than 150 years, the YMCA has focused on providing programs and support for all children, instilling values and fostering behavior that will lead to productive and socially well-balanced lives.

The YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) was founded in London in 1844 in response to the rapid industrialization in England. Young men flooded into the cities, enduring wretched working and social conditions, with the not-unexpected consequences of social violence and crime. What began as an evangelical movement to help these young people proved so popular that, by 1851, the first Y was established in America (Boston), and within seven years there was a Y in Atlanta. With the exception of a few years during the Civil War, the Atlanta Y has been in continuous service since.

My branch, the Cowart Family Ashford Dunwoody YMCA, was established in 1973, and the modern building opened in 1987.

Over the years, the YMCA has expanded to serve men, women and children around the world without regard to race, religion, or racial or ethnic background. Today the YMCA USA is the largest nonprofit community service organization in America. We focus on building character through our core values: caring, honesty, respect and responsibility. We incorporate these values into all our programming.

We believe that all kids are “at risk.” We want to identify elements that foster healthy children and families, elements that help prevent problem behaviors in the first place. In recent years we have shifted our approach from a deficit model, which identifies and tries to correct what goes wrong for a child in the family, the neighborhood and the community, to an asset-based model. The model identifies key elements in a child’s life, the assets, which are predictive of a child’s eventual success — meaning development into a caring, competent and responsible adult.

In the 1990s, the YMCA collaborated with a Minneapolis-based nonprofit research group, the Search Institute. Its research pioneered the Abundant Asset model, which we use today. It is based on a 1989 study of more than 2 million sixth- to 12th-graders across the country. The study identified 40 developmental assets that positively correlate with healthy, pro-social behaviors and negatively correlate with high-risk, unhealthy behaviors.

The most surprising result of the study was that regardless of gender, economic or family status, race or ethnicity, the more assets a child has, the more likely he or she is to behave well and the more resilient he or she will be to life’s stress and challenges. Conversely, the fewer assets, the more likely a child is to engage in antisocial, unhealthy behaviors.

The asset inventory is divided into two general categories. External assets focus on support from family, neighbors and others; empowerment, where children are valued by their community and have opportunities to contribute to others; boundaries and expectations for behavior; and constructive use of time. Internal assets focus on positive identity, a commitment to learning, and social competencies to build relationships and make good choices.

The challenge we face, according to the most current Search Institute research, is that the average young person surveyed has about 19 of the 40 assets. Only 9 percent of all youths surveyed had 31 or more developmental assets present, showing that race, culture, socioeconomic status and family structure on their own are not determinants of success.

I invite you to join me at the March 16 Civic Roundtable meeting, where I’ll present the Search Institute’s Developmental Asset model, reviewing the 40 key assets for success, with emphasis on those assets that can be provided by our community for our youths. The meeting will be at the North Fulton Service Center, 7741 Roswell Road, from 6:30 to 9 p.m.