The community of Lompoc is advancing a set of initiatives to provide new and motivating opportunities for its young people so they can navigate and thrive in the world beyond high school. This focus is critical given sobering national trends that reveal increasing death rates and other deteriorating outcomes among children in the U.S.
National trends paint a disheartening picture revealing a rise in child deaths—due to various causes—leading to a shocking decline in the overall life expectancy of our nation.
The national statistics are sobering: Suicide rates for children under 17 surged by 84 percent between 2007 and 2018. Homicides committed against children started increasing in 2013—driven by gun violence, which became the leading cause of death among U.S. children in 2020. Drug-related deaths had remained relatively stable for young people until just before the pandemic, when it rose by 94 percent between 2019 and 2020, followed by another 20 percent increase in 2021. And child traffic fatalities, which had been on a decades-long decline, began rising in 2019.
The alarming reality is that guns, drugs, depression, and accidents are cutting short the lives of our children. Startlingly, 1 in 25 American 5-year-olds won’t live to see their 40th birthday, a death rate approximately four times higher than that of other wealthy nations. This grim picture is not evenly spread, with a recent California study suggesting that the gap in survival by income has grown since the pandemic, disproportionately affecting low-income areas and communities of color.
Layered on top of these mortality factors is the fact that 1 in 5 American children is obese, giving the U.S. the highest obesity rate in the world. Relatedly, an equal number of U.S. children suffer from chronic diseases such as diabetes and asthma. National standardized test results are also in decline. Post-pandemic, math and reading scores fell by the largest margin in 30 years, with the most significant drops occurring among already lower-performing students.
Amid this deeply troubling backdrop, Lompoc stands as a ray of hope. The community is rallying like never before to create a safety net for its young residents. Initiatives are sprouting across town, and my office is bringing organizers together to share information and explore possibilities for collaboration.
At the heart of this movement is the Lompoc Unified School District, led by its new superintendent, Dr. Clara Finneran. The district is prioritizing students’ social-emotional learning, with dedicated counselors in every school to enhance skills in self- and social awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. Wellness and Resource Centers are being established to provide vital support.
The Family Service Agency’s Community Changers Program is educating parents on how to foster children’s learning and advocate within the educational system. The district has even enlisted the help of UCSB’s renowned sociology professor, Dr. Victor Rios, to train teachers in addressing the needs of marginalized youth.
Lompoc’s community-driven programs are equally inspiring. During the school year, Future for Lompoc Youth offers communication and career readiness skills for high school juniors and seniors. During the summer, students receive a $5,000 stipend for participating in a UCLA-sponsored leadership and civic engagement curriculum. The program has grown substantially and is expanding to include mentors from local businesses, ensuring that no student graduates without a plan for their future.
Another community-led initiative, the Lompoc Teen Center, provides after-school peer tutoring and recreational activities. Students can earn field trips to exciting places like Magic Mountain or Highline Adventures. The Center also offers space for safe Friday night gatherings with music and games until 8 p.m.
The collaboration extends to the Lompoc Y, which offers memberships to all middle and high school students, providing them a safe space with access to physical activity, mentoring, and a sense of belonging. The Lompoc Police Department is engaging youth through a revitalized Explorer Program, attracting a new cohort of potential future law enforcement professionals while fostering positive relations between the department and young residents.
Numerous exciting programs rooted in the creative economy are on the horizon. The Lompoc Theater Project and the new owners of the Lompoc Record building plan to offer arts programs for young people to explore their cultural roots. Future Leaders of America intends to introduce its LatinX leadership development program to Lompoc. The South Coast’s Violence Intervention and Prevention Initiative is expanding to Lompoc with a Youth Safety Partnership aimed at increasing family and community engagement to reduce violence.
Additionally, C4 Lompoc (Collective Communities Creating Change) is working on neighborhood-based programs inspired by the model of Self-Healing Communities with guidance from renowned community transformation expert Laura Porter. C4 is hosting a community event on Sunday, Oct. 15, from 3 to 6 p.m. at the DeWees Community Center in Lompoc.
In a world where the challenges facing our children can seem insurmountable, Lompoc reminds us that proactive, community-driven initiatives can make a real difference. The dedication of its leaders, educators, parents, and community members serves as a beacon of hope, proving that with the right support and determination, we can create a brighter future for our young generations.
Lompoc is setting an inspiring example, showing that it is possible to turn the tide and provide our children with the opportunities and support they need to thrive.
Joan Hartmann represents Lompoc as the Santa Barbara County 3rd District supervisor. Send a letter for publication to [email protected].