Several years ago, I did a major renovation project on a large property I had purchased. In addition to the professional tradespeople I’d hired, I used Craigslist to hire a crew of people, all in their early twenties, to help with general labor.
As I got to know the people on my general labor crew, I learned that many of them had similar stories:
- Many had grown up in low-income, single-mother homes.
- They had all attended the same local high school.
- They were all told by their guidance counselors that they essentially had two options in life: either attend a 4-year college, or work at a gas station or factory.
- Since they felt (or in some cases, had been told) that a 4-year college was not an option for them, they actually did end up working at gas stations and factories in the area, and took side jobs on Craigslist to make ends meet.
While working with the professional tradespeople on my project, these young men witnessed another option that their guidance counselor hadn’t told them about. They saw that they could be hired for $40k – $60k per year, immediately after attending a short, affordable trade-school program. They could go on to make a six-figure income after only 5 years in the field.
After several months of working together, my house project was complete, and the members of the crew went their separate ways. I was delighted that some of them did end up attending trade school to become electricians and plumbers. They will go on to make a good living, hopefully doing something they love and that fills them with a sense of purpose and accomplishment.
Another member of the crew, Jesus, was an incredibly sweet guy with an excellent work ethic and a knack for landscaping. I loved having him on the project. Everyone loved working with him. But his story turned out differently.
That same week that the renovation ended — and Jesus’s employment with me ended — Jesus was also let go from his gas station job, because the owner had sold the gas station and the new owner wanted his family to cover all of the shifts.
So Jesus lost all of his income in just one week.
Not surprisingly, he fell behind on his rent. In a moment of desperation, he attempted to rob the local library with a handgun that wasn’t loaded, got caught, and ended up with a 5-year prison sentence. I was heartbroken when I heard this news.
I thought about the consequences for him. He’ll spend some of the best years of his life in prison, and with a felony on his record, he’ll have even fewer career options when he gets out.
And I thought about the consequences for us. We taxpayers will pay over $100k per year to keep him locked up, and we’ll miss out on having him be a happy, tax-paying, contributing member of our shared society.
And I thought about how this could have been prevented.
While the reasons for Jesus’s struggles were complex and layered, I know that had Jesus had a different schooling experience, his life would look entirely different.
What if he had known his options, had good mentorship, and had the opportunity to get to know himself and how he could move toward the life he wanted? Instead of being in prison, he could have his own landscaping company, own a home, have a family, and most importantly, be living his best life as a happy and contributing member of society.
And so, I came up with a plan. I called the high school these young men had attended and offered, as a local entrepreneur, to teach a career class. For free. I explained that my class would show students their full range of options, and help them understand and chart a course toward the life they want.
The high school declined my offer. They told me that they provided adequate career counseling to their students. The problem was so glaring.
And right then I decided, if we can’t do this (and other) important work in existing schools, then I’ll have to build a school that we can do this important work in. And so, I founded Illuminated Life School.
Kids spend 40 hours a week at school. It has a huge impact on them, for better or for worse.
Together we can make it… for better. We can create an environment where kids are seen in their fullness and their potential. We can hire teachers and staff who know how to tend to the wellbeing of the whole person. We can provide resources that help kids understand themselves — what motivates and inspires them, what they’re afraid of, what they want — so that they can make choices in full awareness. We can create a classroom situation that’s actually based on the current research about what works to help kids learn, instead of just continuing blindly with antiquated methods of instruction that are failing us year after year. We can prepare kids for a world that desperately needs their genius, and their care, and their great ideas.
I know I can’t change all the hard realities of many people’s lives. But I do know that every single child deserves a chance to live their best life — and I know that school is a powerful place to start.