10/05/2011 05:15 pm ET | Updated Dec 05, 2011

A Promise to Bobby

Last week, DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson revealed some startling statistics about our youngest citizens. We learned that 10% of current eighth graders have attempted suicide. You can feel the despair behind that number. That is a hopelessness that cries out for more than just narrow "school reform." That is a public health crisis, a moral calamity.

Over the past ten years, my youth organization has worked with hundreds of young people all over the District of Columbia. From Congress Heights to Crestwood, I've had the honor of serving some incredibly inspirational students and families. Each day is a revelation. Each student is a spark of wisdom and creativity. I have seen hardened young people reignite their joy of play, as they rolled out cookies, spread paint on canvas, pulled carrots out of dirt. I have seen them give so much of themselves in service to the city, cleaning up its parks, wiping away the tears of its seniors, and bringing comfort to the dying in its hospitals.

But, I've also seen the darkness that lurks in alleyways, that creeping pull of the Street. Some of my students are so traumatized by violence that they are numb to its presence. Some drift away, disappearing into a world of drugs, crews, and truancy. I have heard nine-year-old girls bear witness to murder, and I've hustled students indoors under a hail of bullets. I have watched teenagers go off to funerals with the nonchalance of a trip to the store. I have talked down young men who shook so much from their inner rage that it boiled over onto others. I shudder to think about how many have contemplated suicide.

Along these two paths, I've worked with two boys coincidentally named Bobby. My first Bobby beat the odds. He's computer-fast smart, quick with the answer and the raised hand. He's the first to lead the discussion and the last to leave the service project. I have traveled with him outside of DC to help others and learn about our global differences. He's got a big heart, a belly laugh, a love for science, and a talent for practical jokes. From a shy 4th grader, who was a bit of a mama's boy, he has matured into a thoughtful and dedicated young man. He's going to college, no doubt.

The second Bobby was part of a large, chaotic family. His mother was an addict. His father was long gone. He bounced from couch to shelter to street, but he was still a regular participant in our tutoring program. Rail thin with a perpetual runny nose, Bobby didn't have a lot of friends. At school, he would latch on to the janitor and help clean up the classrooms. Our program tried everything to help Bobby, from extra mentoring to family counseling. But, the streets were powerful, and they caught Bobby in their death grip. He began to come less and less. He was dirtier, angrier. I would hear about him throwing rocks at other kids, starting fights, hanging out with the wild-eyed and desperate. I lost Bobby. I failed him, and it breaks my heart to this day.

It is profoundly unfair that two boys so similar in so many ways can have such different outcomes. These brutal flips of the coin, stacked and unending, are killing a generation. How many future physicians are we losing? How many humanitarians, preachers, presidents? With all of our hearts, with every atom of our being, we have to believe and invest in our young people. The collective anger we direct at the truant, the delinquent, the runaway, and the disconnected must be transformed into action. In the District, we are experimenting with a Promise Neighborhood, a model that brings a wide-array of services to a targeted community. This is not enough. Let's bring everyone to the table: government, business, non-profits, educators, the faith community, parents, and young people. Let's implement a comprehensive youth development strategy that includes the highest level of in-school instruction, meaningful out-of-school-time programs, nutritional assistance, family and health support systems, vocational training, and college preparation.

Let's build the Promise City.