Youth speaker’s story inspires those at Kids Count breakfast

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Christian Ortiz, youth speaker at the 22nd Annual Kids Count Breakfast, said he was disheartened reading the organization’s Factbook because, amongst its pages, within its statistics, he saw his friends, classmates and his neighbors. “But I am so far removed from those statistics,” he said.

Held Monday at the Crowne Plaza in Warwick, the breakfast brings together policymakers from across the state for the revealing of the KidsCount Factbook. The study tracks 71 indicators of child well being from poverty, to graduation rates, to youth incarceration, throughout Rhode Island. The purpose of the book is to assist various civic leaders in putting forward initiatives to better the lives of Rhode Island’s youth.

Ortiz, a senior at Classical High School and a member of Young Voices, a statewide, urban youth advocacy group, will graduate in May and attend college in the fall. He has aspirations to join the National Guard and become an officer.

Although Ortiz is a minority student in a single-parent home, he “chose to take the path less traveled,” to change his life trajectory, to avoid becoming another statistic.

He said it wasn’t always easy, he often felt “powerless” to his circumstance, but unlike many of his community he had role models, outlets and motivators.

“My mother has always been my inspiration and my biggest motivator. She pushed me to keep going, to succeed,” Ortiz said.

He became more involved, more outspoken, and joined Young Voices, which “groomed” him to be a leader, offering him opportunities to speak out for his community, for his right to education.

He said to see more youth like him, defying the odds of circumstance, the state needs to take the opportunities he was allotted, the role models, experiences and opportunities and create them on a larger scale.

Ortiz said, “We need to see positive influences in homes, provide kids with personalized education that ignite our passions.”

Ortiz called for unified action and the “will to make change,” to inspire youth, helping them to succeed despite whatever background they may come from.

The Factbook found that although the state saw numerous improvements in the last year, such as the lowest teen death rate in the country, with one of the most comprehensive children’s health insurance, the state still struggles with discrepancies between races.

Lisa Hamilton, the breakfast’s keynote speaker, and vice president of external affairs for The Annie E. Casey Foundation, said in the coming months “race equity should be at the core of our work.”

“We need to make sure our children, no matter their race, heritage, or disability, have the opportunity to succeed,” Hamilton said. “It will take political will and public spirit, but we need to ensure all kids can have a bright future.”

The Factbook found that although the unemployment rate is decreasing throughout the state, the rate for African American (12.2 percent) and Hispanic workers (9.1 percent) was higher than the white workers rate of 5.2 percent. Parent employment is crucial in a child’s quality or life. Consequently, minority populations saw smaller median family incomes and higher percentages of children living in poverty.

Similarly, although there has been a decline in youth involved in the juvenile justice system overall, there are large disparities across races.

Between 2006 and 2015 the annual number of youth in the care of the Training School declined from 1,123 to just 470. From 2009 and 2015 the number of juvenile offenses declined by 38 percent from 7,829 to 4,885.

The Factbook reported, “While 46 percent of offenses referred to the Family Court involved white youth, 22 precent black youth, 16 percent Hispanic youth, one percent Asian youth, and 16 percent of offenses involved youth of some other race or an unknown race, youth of color are disproportionately more likely than white youth to be detained and sentenced to the training school.”

Hamilton said in moving forward we must address the “whole child,” not just improving one sector of their lives to see the other areas fail. Solutions need to benefit the whole child to see them “successfully transition into adulthood.”

“The best way to predict the future is to create it,” Hamilton said. “We need to get beyond the notion of our own kids, because they are all our kids and just as important as the ones we are raising.”

At the end of the breakfast a Factbook was personally presented to the state’s congressional delegation and Governor Gina Raimondo.

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