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Community Solutions Tour: Porter-Leath and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Memphis

Sonal Shah, Director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, visits some organizations making an impact on at-risk youth in Memphis.

I had a pretty full day yesterday, sandwiching my visit to Youth Villages between two other Community Solutions Tour stopsPorter-Leath and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Memphis.

For over 160 years, Porter-Leath has been assisting at-risk children and families in Memphis, helping more than 10,000 low-income children and families annually with programs designed to meet their developmental, health and social needs at the earliest opportunity.  Porter-Leath addresses the dire need for infant mortality prevention by utilizing AmeriCorps members as paraprofessional home visitors to deliver an evidence-based curriculum into the home of at-risk pregnant women— resources on prenatal care, nutrition, and infant health are shared with the mother-to-be over the course of the pregnancy with bi-weekly visits.  (As an aside: One thing that I continue to find with many of the innovative organizations I visit is that when you pull back the curtain, they often effectively use voluntary service and national service resources like AmeriCorps to deliver their program model, showing that the service agenda and social innovation agenda often go hand-in-hand.)

And in continuing the theme of yesterday’s post on the importance of measurement and evaluation, Porter-Leath has partnered with the University of Tennessee Health Science Center to provide an independent evaluation of its programs.  Porter-Leath utilizes the evaluation results to improve the quality and efficacy of its services—ensuring that the program is making improvements in the lives of the most at-risk children and families.  The results are telling:  In an area with one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country, over 93 % of babies that underwent the Porter-Leath program in 2008 were born with a healthy birth weight of at least 5.5 pounds, the leading factor in infant mortality.  The program is not only effective but affordable with the cost being only $1,354 for 20-40 home visits over a one-year period as opposed to the average cost of a two-week stay in the neo-natal intensive care unit for a low birth weight baby being $75,000.

Sonal Shah Visits Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Memphis

Sonal Shah visits with students and their mentors as part of the Big Brothers Big Sisters after-school mentoring program at Ross Elementary School in Memphis, Tennessee. May 4, 2010. (by Morgan Mukarram)

The President and First Lady have continually emphasized the importance of mentoring as a means of service—launching the White House Mentorship Program to put their own words into action.  As the President said during a Ceremony in Honor of National Mentoring Month on January 20, 2010:

That’s why mentoring is so important.  We know the difference a responsible, caring adult can make in a child’s life:  buck them up when they’re discouraged; provide tough love when they veer off track; being that person in their lives who doesn’t want to let them down, and that they don’t want to let down; and refusing to give up on them—even when they want to give up on themselves.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Memphis is one of the many chapters of the national Big Brothers Big Sisters carrying out this mentorship mission.  The program targets the most at-risk-children of incarcerated individuals, children from single parent households, and children who are in foster care.  The program applies community-based mentoring—one-on-one time spent between the volunteer and young person around a shared activity or interest that can range from performing a service project together or shooting hoops after school.  In a nationwide study, Little Brothers and Little sisters were found to be 52% less likely to skip school and 46% less likely to use illegal substances. 

Today I ended my tour of Memphis with an address before the Annual Conference of the Alliance for Nonprofit Excellence. The Conference brings together non-profits from across the region to discuss a range of topics—from measuring impact to focusing on community-based solutions.

It’s been a privilege to visit all of these organizations and to have the opportunity to speak to many of the community leadership and engaged citizenry of Memphis. Let us know where you are seeing similarly great work by sending us your feedback.

Sonal Shah is Director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation in the White House Domestic Policy Council.