What Can Church Youth Leaders Learn from Baltimore?

For ten years, a Baltimore non-profit called Thread has been working with the youth of that city. Thread’s goal is to “foster students’ academic advancement and personal growth into self-motivated, resilient, and responsible citizens.” It does this by seeking out underperforming high school students and providing each one with a “family of committed volunteers” who coach them and connect them with other community resources. Thread is just one of hundreds of non-profits focused on youth services (Charity Navigator lists 577 such organizations ), but Thread has gotten attention recently for its effectiveness in helping youth achieve positive outcomes. Eighty-eight percent of students who have gone through Thread’s program have received a two-year or four-year college degree or certificate. Thread attributes its success to its comprehensive approach to helping students. Once a student is in the Thread program, the organization commits to supporting that student for ten years. During that ten-year span, Thread provides a “family” of up to four volunteers who commit to being available any time of the day or night, and on any day of the year, to support that student. “Resource teams” staffed by experts back up that volunteer family to help meet specific needs as they arise.


While this structure of families and resource teams is important to Thread’s success so far, the real key seems to be the idea of “touchpoints.” Thread emphasizes the need for volunteers and staff to have frequent touchpoints with each student. Thread has demonstrated this emphasis on touchpoints by developing a custom app called Tapestry that allows volunteers and staff to log touchpoints with students. Tapestry will send out an alert if it’s been a while since a student had a touchpoint.

This set of structures and tools seems to work. Thread is growing, and it has ambitious goals. Within the next four years, it aims to have nearly 5% of Baltimore’s adult population working with the organization to serve its youth in some way.

Reading about the work that Thread is doing, I can’t help but think about our church’s own youth and ministering programs. With the transition from home- and visiting-teaching to ministering, Church leaders have said that one of the aims of this change is to allow bishoprics to focus more on helping the youth in their wards. And the Church has long emphasized that all of its programs are intended to support individual families. In that way, I see parallels between the volunteer “families” of Thread and the programs run by each ward. Looking at it from an individual youth member’s perspective, he or she is assigned leaders, ministering brothers and sisters, a bishop, and perhaps a ministering companion. Ideally, all of these adult members are supported by Church resources and, in some cases, expert help. These adult members each do their part to achieve the goal of helping the youth of their ward become more committed and fully formed disciples of Christ, who are in turn able to help others along the gospel path.

Looking at Thread’s Tapestry app, I think about how amazing it would be if a bishop or a Young Women’s president could look at a list of the youth in the ward and see when each had last been contacted, who had made that contact, and what they had done. I imagine the Church’s intrepid software developers could juice up LDS Tools to look something like Thread’s Tapestry app, but I can just as easily imagine all the privacy concerns such a change might cause. Beyond that, implementing such a solution on a global scale for millions of youth and their leaders may be more trouble than it’s worth. My larger point is that those leaders who have accepted responsibility for shepherding youth through their crucial transition years should strive for as much awareness of the true situation for each young member as they can get. They should try to recreate the Tapestry app in their heads as they conduct interviews, sit in on Sunday classes, receive reports, and visit homes.

The Church and its youth program are not just another flavor of youth-focused non-profit. Thread wants to get kids through college. The Church wants to help kids on the path to eternal life. That said, it may sometimes be helpful to look at what’s working in the wider world, and to see whether we can borrow a few strategies. So what do you think? Have you seen tools and methods like those used by Thread employed in your ward?

6 comments for “What Can Church Youth Leaders Learn from Baltimore?

  1. “I imagine the Church’s intrepid software developers could juice up LDS Tools to look something like Thread’s Tapestry app, but I can just as easily imagine all the privacy concerns such a change might cause.”

    Generally speaking, I think this is a perpetual problem. Some of the Church’s best programs can also be incredibly intrusive if not carried our or handled appropriately.

  2. I agree that privacy concerns are an issue here, but I really do like this idea of empowering wards–and especially ward leaders–to be better at taking care of their flock. I’d never heard of Thread before, but it really does sound like there are some ideas that the Church could take and build on. Great post!

  3. Yes, I think these tools have the potential to creep people out of the balance isn’t right. I remember a news report about an annotated map of ward members somewhere that got made public and had a bunch of notes about families’ situations. Not pretty.

  4. This sounds like a great group. The Tapestry app sounds like it’s just a way for leadership to record each “touchpoint” and notify everyone if the most recent one is old.

    Levi, do you know how they recruit and involve students? In college I volunteered for a similar program in Utah that assigned volunteer mentors to every kid who had been involved in the juvenile justice system. I went in hoping to make a difference, but my kids couldn’t care less about me. One refused to do anything, and the 14-year-old that did spend time with me didn’t think it was very cool that I took him bowling, or to play basketball with my younger brothers, or tried to help him with his homework. He didn’t have to spend time with me, and usually he wanted to spend more time with his sister’s boyfriend, who he thought was awesome because he gave him beer, cigarettes, and Penthouses. I was sad that I wasn’t able to really establish a meaningful connection with him. Maybe if I’d been more committed, or not been a starving college student myself, I could have taken him out to lunch more and we could have talked enough that it would last. And my experience was probably less than a year, so Thread’s 10-year commitment is interesting.

    Curious how Thread addresses the problem of disinterested teens.

  5. Matt-
    You know, I had a similar experience to yours, but I was in high school, and volunteered to mentor an elementary school student. I didn’t have the resources or long-term commitment that would have allowed me to really make a connection and do some good for that kid.
    According to Thread’s strategic plan (https://www.thread.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/thread-fy18_21-strategic-plan-summary.pdf), they have recruited volunteers from universities and corporations, but are planning to expand their recruiting to neighborhood and religious groups. As for how they recruit students, they take ninth graders who rank in the lowest 25 percent of their class
    academically and who face additional challenges outside of the classroom. I don’t know what they do to ensure they’re bringing in kids who are likely to stick with the program.
    I think one of the things that they do that helps teens who may not totally buy into their program at first is that they surround each student with multiple adults who are contacting them directly and showing their investment in the student’s progress. Having that group focusing on an individual makes a lot of sense, and I can see how leaders in a ward teaming up to do the same could be very effective. Where no one leader may be able to break through, perhaps several leaders trying a tag team effort can.

  6. Thread reminds me of the “Interrupters” operating in Chicago—a similar sort of surround and engage approach to a different problem. Their methodology was developed by an epidemiologist who sends former gang members and other known figures to go out to try and “interrupt” the cycles of violence plaguing certain neighborhoods by creating human touchpoints at the flashpoints (PBS did a documentary a few years ago, but they’ve been in the news again lately). I very much like the idea of our institutional practices taking cues from what works outside—there’s a lot worth taking note of. We could do so without abandoning efforts to spread what works on the inside. I would love to see the church promote local wards and stakes taking their cue from headquarters and partnering with effective, local NGOs/non-profits in order to perform service (I like the idea of partnering with Thread!). My experience with local efforts on this end is that they’re rather lack-luster.

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