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Youth, what can we do for you?

Tony SanchezWe need to approach our young people and ask them what we can do for them. We need to ask our youth what they think we can provide on the reservation that will enhance their quality of life and keep them out of harm’s way. We must find out what they feel needs to be done to stop the substance abuse and lessen the pressures that are threatening the very lives of those who are the future of our Seminole Tribe.

You and I, all of us adults, may have ideas of what might work, but we are basing our solutions on how it was when we grew up. We must realize that the Seminole child of today is much different than the child of yesteryear. When we grew up, life was so much simpler. Both moms and dads were still working. The elders made sure we got fed and kept us near the camp when the sun went down. We laughed and played and went to school with none of the pressures on us that today’s Seminole youth have.

Our kids are targets everywhere they go, especially as they approach the age when they come into their money. All of our boys and girls can tell us disturbing experiences they have had dealing with their peers outside the reservation, targeting our children as a means of gaining what they perceive as an easy way of life. I cannot believe some of the stories my own daughter has told me, the cruel words so many of our Seminole kids have heard. Such pressure prevents our kids from being the kids we used to be. Instead of exploring the possibilities of the future, they worry about the money, what their peers think and making decisions they are not prepared to make. No other young people in Florida suffer this pressure.

I have heard Seminole leaders speak many times about how “the youth are our future.” Well, it is time to make sure they have a future. We have to ask the youth, starting with the best and brightest, what we can do. Every reservation will be different. What works in Hollywood may not work in Big Cypress. Access to everything, good and bad, is different on each reservation. Programs must be styled on each reservation with this in mind. Above all, we need to talk to youth on every reservation.

This is something that will take all of us – Tribal leaders, Tribal members, all of us. We must recognize that there is a need for action, and we must step forward. Accepting the fact that there is a need comes first. With all the departments and skillful minds we have – and with input from the youth, themselves – I’m very confident we can start developing and creating solutions.

No, it won’t happen overnight. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and it is going to take the entire Tribe to heal the Tribe now.

We have to recognize, especially, that the youth will need help in learning how to deal with the sudden wealth they come into. We need an extensive financial literacy program to be established. Going through a one-day program like they do now does not work. The focus is not on learning; it’s, “I got to finish this thing to get my money.”

The type of program I would envision encompasses a much longer period and produces sustainable results. Call it “Financial Skills 101” if you want to. Yes, you get a certain amount every month, but you have to manage it. Understand what it means to buy a car, a house. Learn to balance a checkbook, how to make sure bills are paid every month. Understand fully what credit is all about. Become adept at the standard components of survival in pursuit of sustainable prosperity.

Beware of the dangers, the culture of con men and crooks that lie in wait for our Seminole youth when they are most vulnerable. The buzzards are flying around everywhere they go. We must give our youth the knowledge, the courage and the life skills to withstand such pressure. They must learn, even at a young age, how to do real business in the real business world, how to negotiate, how not to be taken advantage of, how to barter, compromise and, above all, protect – not squander – their assets.

Take a look at the famous. How many stories about wealthy entertainment artists and athletes going broke have we heard? World-famous men and women who became targets, just like our youth. The big entourages that surround such people, the uncontrolled spending, the eye on a party somewhere and not on the checkbook. Toni Braxton, M.C. Hammer, Mike Tyson, the list goes on and on and on – individuals with a tremendous amount of wealth, now struggling, forced to take jobs they don’t really want to take, all with huge IRS issues. Our youth have to learn how to deal with the IRS. The IRS can take anybody down and they will do it.

I think about Edgerrin James, who I personally know. High school football hero from Immokalee, went to the University of Miami, drafted by the Colts in the first round, got a big check and all of a sudden, long-lost cousins, uncles and aunts he never knew came out of the woodwork like he was their favorite nephew or cousin. It occurred to me that our youth are just like Edgerrin James. The minute they get their money, everyone comes out of the woodwork.

Suddenly, the most important thing Edgerrin had to do in life wasn’t to play football; it was to safeguard his money – a full time job! He had financial advisers, attorneys, agents, contracts but he still had to be personally conscious of where his funds were going because, after all, he is the one taking the beating.

The NFL provides all of its players with an intensive orientation program that takes athletes through the pitfalls of sudden wealth. We need to be doing the same thing.

But how can we bring the youth to the table? How can we go about asking them for their opinions? We have to sit down with them, convene focus groups. We start by asking them point-blank, “What are we doing well?” Then, “What can we improve upon?”

We must make it clear that we are seeking brutal honesty. I am President of the Tribe, and I admit I have no idea what they are going to say – no one does. But we need to know, “Youth, what can we do for you? How can we make this work?”

Then, we need to take action. If we truly believe that our youth are the future, then we can’t give it lip service.

Let’s find out. Let’s not guess. We can do it, especially with the resources we have today. The Tribe could have never done this when we were young. The Tribe and all its members were busy trying to survive, get established. Things are different today. We are established, and so, too, are our problems.

I don’t know how long the Man upstairs will let me be around. When you are in a role of leadership, you have to protect everything and everyone, and right now, one of the problems we have not done a good job of addressing is helping our youth when they come into their money. When should the teaching begin? Third grade? Middle school? I really believe something needs to start at least two or three years before they come of age to receive their funds. It needs to be creative, intensive and they need to learn, not just “finish.”

We go to funerals, and when it is a young person, many of their friends and peers are there. You have to believe this experience seriously affects a young man or woman, but we have to remember that after the friends leave the funeral, they still have the pressure. It’s still there, maybe even worse now. I believe they are trying to function in the best way they know how. We need to help them through. Our leadership cannot give up on the youth. We must be prepared to listen and move to meet the expectations and desires of the youth. We must guide them and listen.

I am aware that this is a topic that will hit some nerves, but I have always spoken of making decisions today that will ensure that the Tribe will be around, healthy and well for years and years, all the way until whenever that final day is. I believe in my heart that the leadership of today is ready and willing to address this sensitive issue. We are all tired of burying the youth.

I welcome all suggestions. Any youth with any ideas should contact my office. I will personally come talk with you at the earliest convenience, or, if you would prefer, contact your reservation’s Council or Board Representative. You know them; you see them all the time. Just walk up and talk to them. We have to start somewhere. Tell us what you want. Tell us what we can do for you. We want to talk to you. Come talk to us.

My hope is that this dialogue will start the ball rolling and ensure that our Tribal leadership does a much better job in developing appropriate, effective programs that can help our youth have a long and prosperous future.

May God be with all of the family and friends of those we have lost recently. Since the month of May signifies Mother’s Day, a great thank you to all of our moms.


Tony Sanchez Jr. is President of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Inc.

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