John Quiñones: AVANCE makes life better for children

First published on Sunday, October 9, 2016
Austin American Statesman – Opinion

By John Quiñones

My father, Bruno, worked as a janitor in San Antonio. He had no education and spoke only Spanish. So when I was 13 and my dad was laid off, his only option was to pack up his family and join a migrant workers caravan.

My parents, sisters and I picked cherries in Michigan and tomatoes in Ohio. The hours were brutal, the pay next to nothing. I was a fifth-generation Texas child, descended from a long line of hardworking, Spanish-only-speaking families, and I was destined to repeat my father’s life.

Until I received two gifts.

One was my parents’ understanding that education would give me a future. The other was a program, Upward Bound, which made sure I could succeed in school, stay in school, and even enter college.

I never doubted I wanted a better life. So when we were picking tomatoes one cold morning, bent backs already aching, and my father told me I had a choice — education or a job like his — I knew I would commit to education. When we found our way back to San Antonio, I attended Brackenridge High School.

But I was from an impoverished, Spanish-speaking family. I wasn’t equipped to succeed in school, and my parents did not know how to support me in achieving my education goals.

I made it through high school and into college because Upward Bound, a federal program designed to help low-income students prepare for college, made sure I could catch up in high school and rise to the level of college material by graduation.

In other words, a program that made sure I could succeed in school saved my life.

As my parents promised, education did make an extraordinary difference. My communications degree took me to radio work and then television reporting. Inspired by my mother’s constant question — “John, what would you do?” — I created the “What Would You Do” TV show, where we expose complicated moral situations and challenge Americans to look at their values and decisions.

Today there are thousands of parents who, like my own mother and father, would give everything they have to support their children in school. They know education is the key to a different life.

What they don’t know is how to prepare their children to succeed in school. They themselves are uneducated, most often fighting the grind of poverty. A predictable pattern exists. Children who are not prepared for kindergarten fall behind by third grade; children who are behind in third grade typically drop out in high school; children who drop out in high school too often join the ranks of the underskilled and unemployed and tend to become very young parents themselves. They know education would make an enormous difference for their own children, but like their parents, they have no education, no confidence and no resources. Trapped in destitution, their own children repeat the cycle.

Which is why when people say “AVANCE changes everything,” they are so very right.

AVANCE-Austin provides a one-of-a-kind dual-generation program that educates children, infants through age 3, so that these children are school-ready.

But moreover, AVANCE educates the parents. AVANCE teaches parents the skills they need to become their children’s first teachers, down to basics many of us take for granted such as teaching colors, the alphabet, and motor skills through play and coloring. AVANCE shows parents how to be confident, lifelong supporters of education for their children, explaining how to navigate the school system and make sure their children keep learning.

The results? Over 94 percent of children who go through AVANCE graduate from high school. A vast portion of AVANCE parents go on to get their high-school-equivalent degrees, enter local community colleges, get jobs and obtain a better income.

And thus the cycle of poverty is broken for an entire family and its descendants.

Which is why I am coming to Austin on Oct. 19 to keynote AVANCE-Austin’s annual fundraising luncheon at the Four Seasons Hotel.

Every day I get to live the life of someone who was able to graduate from high school and go to college. Today there are children like me who will make it because of AVANCE-Austin.

There are thousands more children who need AVANCE-Austin’s services too. If you believe, as I do, that we are called to constantly examine our own actions and support the community around us, I encourage you to look at the work of AVANCE-Austin. You are blessed to have this organization in your community.

Because AVANCE changes everything.