Part 2: A Novel Program Provides a Network of Support for At-Risk Youth

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How a Tapestry of Care Helps Teens Succeed

By David Bornstein

In the second installment of a two-part series on Thread, the Baltimore-based social support program, author David Bornstein revisits the organization and examines the structural aspects of its programmatic success.

From the author’s description of Thread’s programming, “The organization works with public high school students who are struggling academically and facing major difficulties including poverty, homelessness and family breakdowns. Students enroll during ninth grade, and are matched with five volunteers; as they mature, and move on to college or jobs, the volunteer-to-student ratio declines. Thread is modest in size — it has worked with 255 students from three Baltimore high school — but its graduation and post-secondary enrollment rates are so impressive that the model warrants serious attention.”

Such intensive programming leads to questions of systematization and scale. Would it be possible to conduct such a program across an entire city? Where would the volunteers necessary for such an effort be found? How would volunteers handle difficult periods with their mentees, and vice versa? Where do parents fit into this equation?

The answers to these questions in large part, Bornstein says, lay within Thread’s programmatic culture, as the organization has grappled with these issues over the 12 years of its existence. “The culture is built on many details,” notes Bornstein. “For instance, when Thread staff members or volunteers first interview students, they show the relationships are two-way. ‘For every question we ask them, they ask us one,’ explains Sarah Hemminger, a co-founder and the chief executive of Thread.”

The program makes it clear that “[w]e’re not here to fix or save you or invade your privacy,” adds Hemminger. “This is not a tutoring or mentoring program. We’re here to stand by your side for a decade and figure out this stuff together.”

With such an intensive commitment, Thread makes a point of managing volunteer expectations of their role in the relationship. As Bornstein notes, “If, say, a student hasn’t attended school for two months, and one morning accepts a ride and attends class for an hour, it’s high fives all around. For volunteers, Thread defines success not around how their students behave, but around [the volunteer’s] own behavior. As long as they continue to persist, their efforts are acknowledged and celebrated. Experience indicates that eventually breakthroughs happen.”

The excitement and enthusiasm generated by the program has been described as its most striking trait, touching on a broadly felt need for reweaving the tapestry of interconnectedness within our communities.

To read more about the Thread program, with stories from current and previous participants, please read the full article here.