By SHANE SMITH
El Reno Tribune
EL RENO — Gov. Kevin Stitt wants us all to be neighbors.
Stitt spoke Friday at Youth and Family Services, detailing his Be a Neighbor initiative, a program intended to help some of the most in need and vulnerable in the state.
Stitt said people can get involved with local charity groups before looking into his Be a Neighbor program.
“I love Oklahomans,” he said. “People can get involved, and then check out the Be a Neighbor website, where we can start solving these issues county by county.”
Members of churches and different charity groups were in the audience, listening and asking questions about the program.
The crowd numbered about two dozen.
Stitt said the Be a Neighbor initiative works as a database for three types of people: teenagers aging out of foster care, students attempting to graduate high school, and recently released convicts.
The website, beaneighbor.org, lists people who need help in each county, including foster youth at risk for homelessness.
Be a Neighbor provides adoption and mentoring resources for those who are compelled to help these youth into adulthood.
Neighbors can mentor at-risk high school students, those considering dropping out or ex-convicts struggling with employment and acceptance.
Those who sign up to be mentors must be part of a church or charity organization, and they are put through a process to verify their identities.
From there, advocates from the government coordinate the neighbors and match them with those in need.
Those seeking help can also log on to the website and find resources for assistance.
Stitt explained why he started the initiative.
He said as he was campaigning in the 77 Oklahoma counties before the election, he realized there were some needs that couldn’t be met by state government alone.
He said that passing certain laws may help some people, but there is no substitute for citizens working together.
“You have to have real people rolling up their sleeves to do the work whether a law is passed or not. It’s about the hands and feet of Jesus moving through our communities and making a difference.”
Stitt said there are many in Oklahoma who want to reach out and help, so he thought up a way to bring them together in partnership.
“We can be a top 10 state, and it starts by addressing these issues county by county.”
Stitt emphasized the value of choice.
To illustrate his point, he shared part of his life story.
He said that, growing up, one of his friends ended up following the wrong crowd and doing drugs.
This person went to prison.
Stitt, on the other hand, led a disciplined life that led to his becoming governor.
He said before his friend made the wrong choices, no one would have been able to tell which of them would end up successful and which one would go through a rough patch.
He said it all came down to personal choices, and that we as a state could choose to help those who need guidance.
“It’s about listening to parents, teachers and coaches, and making a personal decision to do better. It’s about choices and discipline – that’s what we are getting across in Oklahoma.”
Stitt’s friend was one of the hundreds of low-level drug offenders released last year in the largest mass commutation in U.S. history. Hundreds more were released earlier this year.
Several in the crowd stood up and contributed to the discussion, stressing how important it is for people to get involved.
One of them was Allen Carson, pastor at Wesley United Methodist Church.
He detailed how he went through difficulties as a foster child and he said that mentors working through Be a Neighbor would be of essential use to older foster children.
“Growing up in foster care was difficult, but it’s so much harder for people aged 18-25,” he said. “Those relationships with people who hung on to me even when I didn’t want them to are very important.”
Many young people age out of foster care without being adopted. Stitt shared statistics showing that, nationally, 20% of them become instantly homeless.
Only 3% will get a college degree. Some 70% of the girls will be pregnant within four years of aging out, and around 60% of the boys will be found guilty of a crime.
The Be a Neighbor website shows there are three at-risk youth currently aging out of foster care in Canadian County.
“There are people here who can help them,” said Stitt.