According to the Catholic Church, you need two bona fide miracles to be considered for sainthood. Rick Miller says he has four.
He’s preparing his application for the Vatican. He says that with a smile and a laugh, and because he says everything with a smile and a laugh, it’s almost hard to tell that he’s joking.
Miller is a professor of practice at Arizona State University’s Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics – where one can hardly imagine him turning down a student’s plea for extra credit – but he’s better known as the founder of Kids at Hope, a Phoenix-based organization that rejects the idea that some kids are doomed to fail.
For those who aren’t familiar with your work, explain the Kids at Hope philosophy.
I’m going to give you the Reader’s Digest version of the Reader’s Digest version. Kids at Hope can trace its roots back to about 1993 when I felt that we had overused, abused, misused, maligned the expression “youth at risk.” That expression was misrepresented. It was too easy to toss at a kid and excuse that kid from being successful in life because they had these “risk factors.”… Let’s say that all kids are capable of success no exceptions, and see where that understanding takes us.
There’s been quite a bit of buy-in here in Arizona with support from the state Supreme Court, especially from Chief Justice Scott Bales. What’s that been like?
To have a statewide system like juvenile justice understand the power of Kids at Hope – it’s a dream come true… Our society has come to the conventional acceptance that some kids will do well, some kids will struggle and some kids will fall through the cracks. And as long we believe that, that’s what we’re going to get. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. So, let’s change that to the belief that all kids will do well. That’s the game-changer.
When did you realize this is what you wanted to do with your life?
I knew what I wanted to do in my sophomore year in high school. And I realized it because I grew up in a Mexican-American community. I had lots of friends, and the whole community was our playground. … But by the time I got into high school, I saw a lot of my friends not attending school anymore.
Nobody really even cared that they weren’t there anymore. They didn’t expect them to be there after their sophomore year. They expected a certain group of kids to drop out, and so, they weren’t invested. They were the at-risk kids. I concluded at that time that the only thing these kids were missing was someone who cared about them, who wanted them to be in school, who offered the opportunity to see the value of investing in your education, who cared deeply enough that they wouldn’t let these kids drop out of school. I decided that’s what I would do for the rest of my life – I would make sure that every kid knows someone cares about them.
Have you ever felt hopeless?
We were going to announce that the city of Phoenix was adopting Kids at Hope as its youth development strategy. In those days, we had the sixth largest city in the country accepting our strategy for all of its schools and youth-related departments. We had this big event at the convention center, and that day was September 11, 2001. I saw everyone leave, running back to their homes, trying to see what the heck was happening. The world as you remember came to a screeching halt. … That moment was a body punch. Took all of the air out of my lungs, all of the wind out of my sails.
We limped along until about 2014, when four things happened to us almost simultaneously. It was like the universe said, “We tested you enough, Kids at Hope. You’ve shown resilience. You’ve stuck in there. You haven’t given up. We have to reward that.” First, the Arizona Supreme Court adopted Kids at Hope as its overall youth development framework to redefine the juvenile justice system – huge. … Number two, we got a $250,000 grant to seed Kids at Hope in New York City. … The third thing is that we were cited in a book by the American Academy of Pediatrics as one of four youth development initiatives in the country that is transformational. … And then, Antwone Fisher joined our board, and Antwone’s life put a face on Kids at Hope. … Those four things put us in another realm.
Does any one kid you mentored stand out as a success story?
I was fresh out of college, ready to save the world, and I got a job as a director of a Boys and Girls Club in California. We had a kid named Santos who was a terror. We knew if Santos showed up, we were going to have a bad day. The United Way was coming to visit us one day – it was a day we certainly didn’t want Santos to show up. But as life has it, Santos showed up about two hours before United Way arrived, and chaos erupted. We couldn’t take a chance, so I took Santos home. He left me on the front porch, and a few minutes later, Mrs. Flores shows up on the other side of the screen door, and she says, “What do you want?” At that moment, I’m thinking what do I want? Why am I there? And what am I going to tell her that she hasn’t heard a million times before? She knows she has the rottenest kid in town. I said, “Hello, Mrs. Flores. My name is Rick Miller. I’m one of the directors at the local Boys and Girls Club. Just wanted to tell you what a wonderful son you have.”
Four miracles took place on that front porch: The screen door was open, and I was invited in symbolically and literally… Miracle number two, the Floreses became two of the best volunteers our club ever had. Miracle number three, I went home with two dozen of the best tamales I’ve ever had. And miracle number four – I wish I could tell you that Santos graduated from Harvard Medical School, but I actually have a better ending – he graduated from high school. Nobody gave this kid a chance. No one, including yours truly. He graduated, got married, had three kids, worked at a construction job last I heard, and it started by changing the paradigm.