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Some kids need angels. The angels need help, too

Tayler Farrell is a confident, articulate 12th-grader who's obviously going somewhere in life. She's a likeable and impressive young woman. But it wasn't always that way. Two years ago, Tayler was in serious trouble – defiant, angry, disengaged, failing. "I was skipping school and into pills and weed," she says. "I had attitude. I was acting up with everyone."

Someone noticed. She was invited to join a small program offered at her Toronto school for kids on the dropout track. The lessons she learned there are lifesavers for troubled adolescents – emotional control, interpersonal communication, self-respect. The program, called RY, for Reconnecting Youth, has three goals: school achievement, mood management and harm reduction. It helps kids like Tayler rebuild trust and connection.

I shared a pizza lunch the other day with 17 kids who've gone through RY. They told me how much they'd hated school. "The hardest part of going to high school isn't the school work," one said. "It's the relationships, the drama, the cliques, the bullying." They all had family problems, too. RY gave them a space to grapple with their personal issues and realize that they were capable of making different choices, and doing more. By the end of the program, they told me, RY felt like family.

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The policy discussions about how to help struggling children have recently been focused overwhelmingly on the young. But while the early years are crucial, so are the adolescent years, when a lot of good kids go off the rails. Nobel laureate James Heckman, a world expert on children and social policy, calls adolescence one of the most "critical and sensitive periods in the development of a child." The most effective interventions at that age target "formation of personality, socioemotional and character skills through mentoring and guidance," he and a co-author wrote in a paper published in February.

Effective intervention can change a teenager's trajectory for life. Plenty of evidence shows that young people who graduate from high school, find work and get married before having children will almost certainly enjoy a middle-class life. Those who don't tend to struggle.

In Toronto, 383 kids have gone through RY programs, which are offered in several schools by Regesh Family and Child Services, a small non-profit agency that's worked with high-risk children for 30 years. RY, which was originally developed in the United States, is simple, effective and inexpensive. It costs less than $3,000 a student. It has a strong track record of reducing dropout rates and drug involvement, boosting grades and attendance, improving mood management and decreasing the risk factors for suicide.

At the heart of the program are gifted facilitators such as Lindsey Tomlinson, who acts as mentor, big sister, guide and friend. Her students clearly adore her. She never tells them what they should or shouldn't do. But she is very good at helping them understand the consequences. "I thought I knew what I was getting into with these drugs," Tayler told me. "But what I learned from Lindsey was mind-opening."

Tayler, who graduates this spring, plans to study accounting, get a bachelor's degree and maybe go on to law school. Her friend Ahmed plans to go into construction management. Megan is going to work for a year to save for police academy. They are typical RY success stories. There are hundreds more.

But now, RY needs an angel. It was funded by a non-renewable four-year grant from the federal government, which ends this spring. The school board says it doesn't have the money to keep it going. RY doesn't cost much, but it will shut down unless the agency can find another sponsor.

"RY changed my life," Tayler says. "It deserves to be saved."

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