Last Christmas, two brothers reunited. We'll call them Devon and Trey. They had been separated since they were children, taken from their mother because heroin had taken her. Over the years, the two boys got older, sure, but they never had the chance to grow up.
To grow up, you have to be cared for; you need to experience unconditional love. By the time they were 18, each boy had lived in multiple foster homes. They survived their childhoods without compassion or stability. The idea of being "cared for" was a foreign concept.
After dropping out of high school and aging out of foster care, Devon and Trey hit the streets. The only values they learned came from the gangs they ran with. The two boys, now young men under the law, had no ability to distinguish right from wrong.
Without an education or a way to support themselves, they were homeless. Their desperation led to drugs. Drugs led to crime. Then, inevitably jail. Both served time on Rikers Island, where the guards are as dangerous as the inmates, and the perpetration of violence is as a daily reality.
After all that, their reunion last Christmas should have been a happy one. But, ironically, their bond as brothers showed itself in a terrible way: they found each other both homeless and both drug addicts. Instead of being able to lean on one another for strength after their long separation, they held onto each other for survival -- like two people trying not to drown.
This year, Christmas is a different story for them.
The Doe Fund has always been a family. And this year, they're spending the holiday season with us, wrapping up a year of incredibly hard work: They've earned their high school diplomas. They've spent nine months working in jobs that pay above minimum wage. And they've saved enough money to get their very first apartment.
People often tell me that outcomes like these sound like miracles. But what Devon and Trey have achieved is no surprise to me.
Young people like Devon and Trey are our society's most precious assets. And when you invest in assets, they grow -- and their value grows. They can even pay dividends. In this case, those dividends are the lifelong contributions they'll make to their families and communities.
They have arrested the cycles of homelessness, drug use, and incarceration. That achievement will ripple through the rest of their lives.
When we look at our most impoverished communities and, especially, communities of color, we see only what's on the surface: crime, drugs, homelessness. But these are just symptoms of a much larger, systemic problem: we, as a society, have failed to invest in them.
As big a problem as that is, there is a way to fix it. Just ask Devon and Trey.
These two brothers came to The Doe Fund as addicts with rap sheets and 10th grade educations. They're leaving as bright, hardworking young men, ready to take their places as contributing members of society.
What did we do? We believed in them, in their dignity and their work. And we invested. We offered an opportunity to work and earn money honestly; we offered the chance to complete their educations; and we helped them recognize their talents and build careers.
We invested. And look at the dividends that were returned.
If that's not convincing enough, then we only have to look at the consequences of failing to invest in our poorest communities: the continued mass incarceration of young black men and another generation of fatherless children condemned to the cycles of poverty, homelessness, and drug use.
Around Christmas, we all hope to experience a miracle or two. With protests raging across the country, with racism tearing at the very fabric of our society, and with prisons full of young, black men, it sure feels like we could use one.
The good news is, we don't have to wait around and hope for one. What Devon, Trey, and all the young men like them prove is that the "miracles" we need can be a daily occurrence, as long as we're willing to invest in them.
Harriet McDonald is Executive Vice President of The Doe Fund, a nonprofit organization that provides the formerly homeless and incarcerated with life-transforming opportunities, including paid work, transitional housing, vocational training, and social services. Visit doe.org to learn more.