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Four Years at the Mount

Freshman year

Children Deserve a Chance Foundation

Elizabeth Veronis
MSN Class of 2019

(12/2015) I have always been a sucker for a good come-from-behind, David beats Goliath, rags-to-riches story. I root for the underdog. Come March Madness, I celebrate every Cinderella team that upsets a top seed. Perhaps thatís why one of my favorite holiday shows is A Charlie Brown Christmas. Like Charlie Brown, I see the potential in that sad sapling that no one else wants. My heart positively swells as that straggly tree is loved back to life by a Peanuts Gang that is finally reminded of the true meaning of Christmas, when Linus recites the annunciation to the shepherds from the Gospel of Luke.

It is easy to become cynical about the over-commercialization and secularization of Christmas. The Halloween candy barely clears the shelves before shoppers are prodded into a getting a jump on Black Friday. Fortunately, my hometown of Lancaster, PA, takes a collective breath in advance of the holidays for a day of charitable giving. It is called the Extraordinary Give and it is a 24-hour event that benefits some 300 foundations, non-profits, and service organizations in my community. Last year, $4.5 million was pledged in a single day. One of the beneficiaries is the Children Deserve a Chance Foundation. It happens to be my favorite!

The CDCF was established in 2004 to provide mentoring and college preparation to at-risk kids. It was founded by Jordan Steffy, who was once assisted by a mentor who intervened precisely when it mattered most. As he recounts his story, Steffy was making bad choices in middle school; hanging with the wrong crowd, unfocused in school, and not thinking much about his own future. He was also a stellar athlete, a highly recruited quarterback who wound up playing for the University of Maryland. Recently, he earned an MBA from Columbia University. His turnabout Ė from flailing teenager to Ivy Leaguer, inspired him to give back to similarly situated kids.

The success of this foundation is truly inspiring. Almost all of the program participants will be the first in their families to graduate from college. Most never dreamed this was possible, prior to getting involved with the foundation. They simply didnít see the path forward, for there were so many stumbling blocks ahead of them.

Getting into the foundationís college prep program, known as Atollo, is not a walk in the park either. The students have to endure six weeks of training on the pillars of the program -- strong mind, competition, resiliency, accountability, sacrifice, and finishing strong. The training begins at 5:30 a.m. There are no acceptable excuses for being late. They come because they embrace the programís mantra: "I AM MORE!" They certainly are, on so many levels. But, first and foremost, they are more than the stereotypes of inner-city youth that many people hold.

By the time these kids graduate from Atollo, they will have had access to the very tools usually reserved for the wealthiest among us: top-notch SAT preparation, individual tutoring, assistance on the college application process, and mentoring from some of the areaís brightest and most successful entrepreneurs and businesspeople. They will also have walked the campuses of more than a dozen universities during summer college tours. As they walk across the quads of some of our nationís best schools, these Atollo Scholars can see a changing future. They begin to believe.

Because my father serves on the board of directors for this foundation, I have had the privilege to meet many of the participants, some of whom attended my own high school. As I first learned their stories, I was struck by how different our backgrounds were. But as time passed, I was more struck by how similar our hopes are. We all want meaningful careers. We all wish to contribute to our communities. We all hope to make our families proud. At our core, we all believe that, given the right opportunities and the right resources, we can achieve most anything we desire. Unfortunately, far too many low-income children are never afforded the same opportunities as their more affluent peers

I have been thinking a great deal about the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. In fact, I am researching it for a class I am taking at the Mount. The social and economic ramifications of a divided society should alarm us all. The poor have lower life expectancies, less access to health care, and fewer opportunities to shape the political process. More than at any time in recent history, they have less opportunity to move out of the class into which they were born. That seems to go against the most American of ideals: upward mobility and equal opportunity. Even President Obama has identified this as "the defining challenge of our time."

Like the Atollo Scholars, we need to believe that we can be more: more compassionate and more committed to addressing the problems that leave too many with too little to succeed. The Christmas season provides an ideal occasion to give a helping hand to those who need one. Consider donating to the Children Deserve a Chance Foundation in Lancaster, PA. Or find the children who deserve a chance in your own community. Like Charlie Brown, see the potential in someone who just needs a little more love to thrive. Better yet, see the potential in yourself to be the change you want to see in your community.

Read other articles by Elizabeth Veronis