With so much negative news in the world today, it’s a welcome relief to share and hear a positive story.

Last fall, a fine young man from Clifton, N.J, with humble beginnings and big dreams, was named the 2017 Boys & Girls Clubs of America National Youth of the Year. His name is Carlos Polanco, a 19-year-old whose family emigrated from the Dominican Republic when he was just five years old in search of that “American Dream.”

If you think you can’t make a difference, think again. Carlos was just 12 when he began volunteering at his local Boys & Girls Club, logging more than 550 hours as a mentor for younger kids. In high school, he helped organize a student union and led a peaceful march—some 350 students strong—advocating for more equitable school funding in his community. Last fall, after graduating with honors, Carlos became the first in his family to attend college.

Now a freshman at Dartmouth, he’s studying to become a lawyer and one day a Supreme Court justice.

“I want to be a positive influence in the world,” he says. “I want to be a leader.” Carlos credits his local Boys & Girls Club for giving him the support and guidance he needed to go after his American dream. “The Club,” he says, “provided me a place in which I’ve come to believe in myself, but also in the good in others.”

I had a similar experience as a young man trying to find my way in the world. I grew up in Mount Vernon, N.Y., about 30 miles from where Carlos grew up, across the Hudson, just north of the Bronx. Too many of my childhood friends had little structure or guidance. Some had run-ins with the law and ended up in prison. That could have been me.

But, like Carlos, I was lucky. My father was a Pentecostal preacher who taught me the importance of faith. My mother was a beautician who sacrificed to get me the best education possible. But I also had a local Boys & Girls Club with mentors who cared and gave me the confidence I needed to set higher goals than I might have.

A mentor of mine named Billy Thomas—a genuinely kind man I’ll never forget—hung up all the pennants of the colleges the Mount Vernon Club kids had attended. There were a lot of them—from schools as far away as Notre Dame and USC—and their colors brightened the hallway and told you to work harder and dream bigger than you once dared.

Carlos and I were blessed with a place to go and adults who cared. But too many young people have neither—and they, their families and the country are suffering for it. One-third of America’s high school students don’t graduate on time. And, sadly, young African-American and Latino men are twice as likely to drop out, resulting in higher rates of incarceration, unemployment and poverty.

This isn’t just an inner-city problem. One out of five American kids live in poverty, and three out of 10 are obese or overweight. Every day in America 11 million young people have no adult supervision from the time the school bell rings to the time their folks come home from work. Every summer, that number increases almost four-fold, with nearly 75 percent of our nation’s kids unsupervised.

It’s no exaggeration to say that America’s kids are in crisis. We can and must do better.

If you have a Boys & Girls Club in your town or city, get involved. Volunteer like Carlos and my mentor, Billy Thomas. If you don’t, find a way to make a difference. Help a kid with his homework, a teen with a job interview, or maybe even an acting lesson. But above all, show them someone cares. As a fine young man, and future Supreme Court justice said so eloquently, help a young person believe “in the good in others.”

Mr. Washington, an actor, producer and director, is the National Spokesperson for Boys & Girls Clubs of America.


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