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Notre Dame Lawyer, July 2002

Creating Hope and Opportunity

Notre Dame Lawyer (July 2002)
By David Rivera ’99 J.D., with Katie Evans ’98

Many students attend Notre Dame Law School intending to receive an education that will enable them to effect some positive change in society. Four years ago, when I chose to attend NDLS, I was no different in my desire to make a difference. But although I had set my heart on creating some sort of a nonprofit organization that would improve the quality of life for at-risk children, I didn’t have a clear vision of what, exactly, would make the greatest impact. So, like all lawyers confronted with a new problem, I set out to research the issue. As the facts unfolded before me, it became increasingly evident that education had the greatest potential to create a sense of hope as well as tangible opportunities for children living in poverty.

My hometown of San Diego, California, is often referenced to as ’’America’s Finest City.” Reasons for this designation abound, but climate and opportunity top most of the lists that rate such things. When it comes to climate, I can’t quarrel with those who place San Diego near the top of their lists. But when it comes to opportunity – particularly, economic opportunity – the rankings don’t tell the entire story.”

Since 1980, San Diego County has grown much faster in economic terms than both the state of California and most of the rest of the nation, with the economy doubling over the last two decades. Despite a strong population surge during that time, San Diego’s per capita economic indicators rose by 32 percent. Our economy and workforce have both prospered remarkably – on average.

A recent and more thorough analysis of San Diego’s economy suggests that fewer and fewer individuals benefit from the community’s overall prosperity. During the same period that saw impressive growth, the county also experienced a dramatic increase in income inequality and in the number of people living in poverty. The middle class has declined from 80 percent of the population to 60 percent, and the income gap between the wealthiest and poorest individuals has grown by 30 percent. Today, over 900,000 people in San Diego County – 32 percent of the population – live in poverty.

Even more tragic are the statistics regarding our children. The number of children living in poverty is growing three times faster than both the national average of all persons living in poverty and the average of senior citizens living in poverty. In one generation that number has increased from 16 to 29 percent of the children in the county – a staggering 300,000 children are living in poverty.

Of particular significance is the plight of abused and neglected children. Children in extreme poverty are 18 times more likely to be sexually abused and 25 times more likely to live in otherwise endangering circumstances. San Diego County receives 6,000 child-abuse calls each month, removes 20 children each day from their homes and supports 7,000 children in foster care. But children brought under the protection of the state don’t fare much better. Most foster children drift through seven to 11 homes – and sometimes staying in as many as 30 different homes before leaving the system at age 18. Fully half of San Diego’s foster children do not graduate high school – a rate almost 25 percent higher than for foster children nationwide – and will become homeless by the age of 20.

Children in extreme poverty are also 56 times more likely to be educationally neglected, and the condition of California’s education system exacerbates an already serious problem. Despite recent reforms, California remains last or next-to-last among the states in students per teacher, per principal, per counselor and per librarian. The state spends 20 percent less per pupil than the national average. Local newspapers provide a nearly constant stream of anecdotes about angry parents, low teacher morale, under-performing schools and apathetic legislative responses to these serious problems.

But these statistics and news stories tell only part of the story. As compelling – even daunting – as these facts are, it is difficult to fully comprehend the depth of the problems facing San Diego’s youth. My spirit nearly breaks when I think about the overwhelming burdens our broken systems force our children to shoulder.

Faced with the results of all of my research, but bolstered by my conviction to do something to solve this overwhelming problem, I began searching for answers. An article in PARADE magazine last summer sparked my interest in a unique educational system that simultaneously addresses the material, educational, spiritual and health needs of disadvantaged children.

The article described an educational model consisting of extended school days and Saturday school, small classes of seven to 12 students, daily tutoring and long term mentoring programs. Beyond tending to the academic needs of its students, this model also incorporates other services into a comprehensive program designed to alleviate the difficulties inherent in an underfunded, often inaccessible and fragmented social-services system. After reading that article, I committed myself to opening just such a school, Nativity Prep Academy of San Diego, because I believe that it addresses the causes, rather than just the effects, of childhood poverty.

Nativity schools trace their roots to Jesuits who counseled poor Puerto Rican youths in New York in the 1950s, believing that early intervention and prevention could save disadvantaged children from the siren calls of poverty, drugs and death that abounded on the streets around their impoverished homes. The Jesuits believed that, by challenging and encouraging young people to reach their full potential, they could counter the overwhelming pressures to become involved in a destructive “street” culture.

The Jesuits opened their first formal Nativity school in 1971. Using both remedial and enrichment programs, as well as featuring a small student-faculty ratio, the school provides its elementary-school-aged students with highly focused educational opportunities. Over the last few years, 90 percent of Nativity’s students have gone to college. Thirty more schools have opened across the country using Nativity’s model.

Imagine! A place where a disadvantaged child can be nurtured, loved and given the opportunities and tools to turn dreams into reality. A place where a poor child can feel safe. A place where a neglected child is encouraged to be creative, where that child’s faith can grow and flourish. Most of us experienced this in our own homes. Most of us take for granted that we have the ability to provide this type of environment for our own children. For many children in my community, however, such experiences have been the stuff of imaginations rather than real experiences – until now.

When Nativity Prep Academy of San Diego opens in the fall of 2001, we will employ the core elements of the proven Jesuit model and will focus on providing hope and opportunity co children in crises. Bur we’ve also expanded on the early Jesuit model to some extent, having added a high school component, to serve grades 5 through 12, and by providing onsite nutrition and health services, as well as some residential care.

Nativity’s mission promotes the academic, moral and social growth of at risk students through the rigors of an intensive curriculum, heightened expectations and a highly structured environment. When they graduate, I am confident that our students will have the resources and confidence to compete successfully at all levels.

The project has proceeded with amazing speed. Much like the grace of God, helping children proves to be irresistible for many people. Thanks to the assistance of community leaders and financial supporters, Nativity Prep Academy of San Diego is becoming a reality. Currently, dozens of volunteers – college interns, attorneys, doctors, urban school teachers – conduct research raise funds and help us develop valuable links to important community resources.

Even with these early successes, many people ask me why I would devote my life to this cause. My friends call me a “tragic optimist” –“optimist” because I know, despite the scope of this project, that Nativity Prep will succeed, but “tragic” because of the breadth of the problem I’m trying to solve and because of the vast amounts of resources required to succeed. I can respond only by saying that r have found my passion in helping those in need. And when I reflect on my life, I realize that this passion has grown from a seed planted by my parents a (long time ago and has been more fully formed by experiences I have had along the way.

Both in their careers and in their social lives, my parents advocated for San Diego’s poor and disenfranchised. My earliest memories are of attending community organizing meetings, fundraising events, rallies and numerous other athletic, church and political activities. Through their words and their works, my parents taught me the value of service.

My return to the nonprofit service world came, however, after a slow process of realization and self-discovery. Through trial and error, I sought fulfillment in many different activities. Intercollegiate athletics and a six figure corporate income as a real estate broker did not provide me with the inner satisfaction that I thought they would, although both greatly shaped my character and work ethic. A few years submerged in the subculture of drugs and alcohol, understandably, resulted in even greater inner conflict, strife and confusion. Only through embracing my faith in Christ did I find the inner peace I so desperately sought.

Certainly, many individuals embark on a path to service without similar experiences. But I feel blessed finally to have reached a stage where a meaningful relationship with Christ has replaced emptiness and disconnectedness. I now understand that the lack or presence of popularity or possessions did not prevent me from truly living. Rather when I followed my heart’s passion, I began to experience a more fulfilling life.

I also learned that I needed more education to learn how to help give others the same wonderful opportunities my parents had given me. So I completed my undergraduate degree at the University of San Diego and then chose to attend Notre Dame Law School.

My law school education gave me the practical knowledge I needed to succeed in my endeavor – particularly, a core body of information required to address the vast array of legal and business issues I faced daily. A Notre Dame law degree also adds a special legitimacy in the eyes and minds of potential benefactors and collaborators. And through friendships formed at Notre Dame with classmates, faculty and alumni, I have had tremendous opportunities to develop, discuss and refine this vision.

Even University President Emeritus Reverend Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC, has supported our effort. “I was delighted to learn that you are establishing a series of schools for at-risk children… I think it is wonderful… This endeavor is badly needed if we are ever to alleviate the cycle of crime, drugs, and poverty that plague our inner cities. Keep up the good work and be sure of a daily prayer from here for all success.”

I have truly been blessed. My family, my friends and my Notre Dame family have been tremendously supportive of me and of this effort. I cannot imagine a greater manifestation of God’s plan for me, of complementing his ways with my talents and life experiences. God has blessed me with the gift of hope and with a wonderful opportunity to work toward making my dream a reality), And as I work toward fulfilling this dream, some of San Diego’s most impoverished children may find hope and opportunity in their lives as well.

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