Dead-end jobs. Seemingly inescapable poverty. Illness and obesity. Dysfunctional relationships. These are the norm for many disadvantaged youth. Many grow up believing that their options in life are limited and that their lot in life was predetermined due to individual or environmental circumstances. And why not? This is what they’ve seen and heard from their parents and peers, and the adults in their life got this message as they were growing up also. Many of these young people never hear that they can actually change their circumstances for the better. They, like many of us, don’t recognize that our lives are ultimately determined by the choices we make and that we make many life-defining choices without realizing it. Fortunately, there are organizations such as the j.k. livin’ foundation that help at-risk youth to see that they can have a better life.
j.k. livin, a non-profit foundation created by actor Matthew McConaughey and his partner Camila Alves is “dedicated to helping teenage kids lead active lives and make healthy choices to become great men and women.” The name j.k. livin stands for “just keep livin’” and was inspired by a line in the movie Dazed and Confused, which McConaughey was filming when his father passed away. In dealing with his father’s death, he adopted this line as his mantra to help him get through each day. As he reflected upon the phrase and began to adopt it in every facet of his life, McConaughey realized that it keeps him focused on his values. He proceeded to start a production company, record label, lifestyle brand, and foundation based on the concept of being true to himself and helping others. Seeing that inner city youth lack the social resources and role models they need in order to do this for themselves, he and Alves decided to create a foundation that would teach important life skills and values to at risk youth and impress upon them the need to live a balanced and successful life.
At its core, the mission of j.k. livin is to help young people to see the value in bettering themselves and their prospects in order to become valuable citizens of their communities and the world. The foundation takes a holistic approach to building self-esteem and self-respect in their students and teaching them the importance of taking responsibility for themselves and their actions. They work with students at high schools in low-income areas where students are at much greater risk of dropping out of school, being involved in crime, and other self-destructive behaviors.
Much has been written about what it takes to lift at-risk youth out of their circumstances, and j.k. livin’s approach seems to follow best practices advocated by numerous experts in child development. j.k. livin takes a holistic approach to help their target demographic. A look at a typical month’s lesson plan is perhaps the best way to illustrate this. jkl has a simple but powerful lesson plan for each month of their program. The plan for each month starts with a quote from McConaughey about a value the kids should incorporate into their lives. One month it might be about finishing what you start, the following month it might be about the importance of gratitude. Next, there are exercises that help each child to reflect and discover how that value will help them in their personal and social lives. In the case of the lesson on gratitude, the students learn about the scientifically proven benefits of showing gratitude. Then they are instructed to list the things they are grateful for, no matter how big or how small. They choose a person on their list to whom they are grateful and write a simple heartfelt letter expressing their gratitude to that person and how he or she has made the student’s life better. This may seem like a small thing to many people, but to some of the children going through the program, it’s a fundamental shift in how they conduct themselves and view the world. The second week of each month features a guest speaker who could come from any walk of life. The students are told who the speaker will be beforehand and what the topic of discussion will be, and then they must write down two or three questions they would like to ask the speaker.
Week Three focuses on nutrition and health. McConaughey is well known for his devotion to healthy eating and vigorous exercise, and it’s important to pass this knowledge and habit, if not passion, to j.k. livin’s students. Research has shown that healthier and more active children tend to have more self-esteem and to do better in school, and this is not lost on McConaughey. The final week of each month is spent reviewing the lessons of the month and discuss ways of making the lessons and practices a lifelong habit. To help cement the lessons in the students’ lives and teach them the importance of giving back, j.k. livin also has the students participate in service days which have included helping to clean up Venice, CA, packing CARE packages for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and serving meals to underserved families. There are typically two to three service days per semester.
The j.k. livin approach has proven successful. The foundation was formed in 2008, and since then they have been helping 300 to 400 students per year in four schools in Los Angeles. They are now active in Austin, where the program is run by Maurice Harris of Elite Fitness. Of the students, about 95% complete the program, showing that the students are seeing the value and results in it. Of the participants, 90% graduate from high school, which is well above the average for students in the host schools. The program is continually refined with the input of the participating teachers and the assistance of Communities in Schools who helped develop the curriculum. Many of the students have stayed on in the “Graduate Program,” in which they help mentor new students. Studies have shown that peers can be even more effective mentors than authority figures. As McConaughey says, “The kids in our program are learning simple and positive choices they can make for their future. If these kids start early making smart and healthy choices and actually feel their quality of life improve, they will continue these actions into adulthood.” Seeing how j.k. livin is doing all the right things to help their students make lasting changes in their lives, there is no doubt that many of them will become great men and women.