Sometimes, words fail; then again, it’s a bit like a bowling alley …

By James E. Copple

I am taken with the idea of language, especially metaphor. It fascinates me, our dynamic linguistic toolbox and its ability to, at once, simply communicate the complex; create nuanced compositions of description, insight and perspective; illuminate and elevate the basic; to build bridges of understanding.

In the world of extreme poverty, language is often inadequate to describe what we see; what we experience; how we feel when confronted with its harsh realities.

In a recent conversation, Leo Morton, Chancellor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, found an apt bowling-alley to describe the work of service organizations.

“Imagine this was a bowling lane, and at the end are ten pins that represent jobs,” Morton said, pointing to a long conference table in his office. “The bowling ball in your hand represents the youth in our community. We throw the ball down the lane and hope we hit one or all the pins. Often, however, the ball rolls into the gutter.

“For children, we deploy guards so the ball doesn’t roll into the gutter, but ever-so-slowly down the lane, assuring at least one of the pins will be hit. Our youth-serving organizations, such as Boys and Girls Clubs, represent the guard. We keep children from rolling into the gutter.”

This imagery, as an example, is so richly encompassing: It’s our mission to keep children out of the gutters, which represent failure, despair, lack of capacity, and lack of opportunity. The guard, meanwhile, is a symbol for the role of relationships, mentors, education and opportunity.

Morton, who is African-American, was born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1945 and grew up in the segregated South. Birmingham, at that time, was the epicenter of segregation and the nation’s efforts to end racial and civil injustice. Morton was witness to amazing social change, and he could count family, his church, school and community among the guards that helped direct his life and behavior.

Certainly, Morton had choices along the way. He could have stood a victim, but instead walked a journey of creativity and entrepreneurial spirit that would catapult him to positions of leadership. An engineer by training, Morton worked in industry and succeeded in higher education. Now, at age 71, he isn’t slowing down. Further, Morton has determined his next phase of life will be to assure guards are in place to protect Kansas City’s young people.

How we secure those guards in our communities is a challenge we dare not ignore. Our failure to support guard-organizations will result in lives that lose their lane and children who end up in gutters of misguided community decisions, like those to cut or eliminate funding. The oft-cited road to hell really is paved with good intentions.

We can say children are a nation’s priority, but if we don’t support the efforts of “bumpers” that guard healthy, productive growth and goals, then the future’s harvest is predictably dismal. When growth withers, there can be no abundance; no springtime; no bumper crop; and a zero-score in a game with precious few frames to get it right.

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