BROOKSVILLE — When economic storm clouds cluster, it's best to gather together.
That was a common refrain Tuesday at Hernando County's Summit for Youth, a first-ever gathering of the people and agencies charged with improving the lives of children and teens.
Youth are particularly vulnerable when jobs are scarce and adults are distracted, said Tracy Echols, chairwoman of the event and a director of the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce.
"They look at the future and they give up," she said. "They need someone like you to believe in them until they can believe in themselves."
It's a particularly hard time to be a kid in Hernando County.
Over the last year, the number of families seeking temporary cash assistance has increased by 25 percent, while the number receiving food stamps has increased by more than 57 percent, said Bill D'Aiuto, circuit administrator for the state Department of Children and Families.
Employers are demanding ever-higher levels of preparation to compete in a new, knowledge-based economy, said county economic development director Mike McHugh. And students with high school degrees can expect to earn $7,000 a year more than those who drop out.
"The days of making money with brute and brawn are over," McHugh said.
Economic stresses may contribute to rising levels of domestic violence in Hernando County, which leads Florida in domestic and sexual violence rates, said Debbie Andrews, executive director of the Dawn Center shelter.
And stressed families often need help to make sure their children get the support and early education they need, she said.
"Nine out of 10 children who enter our services are developmentally delayed," Andrews added. "We've seen 3-year-old children who haven't learned to crawl yet."
It's not enough to simply enforce the laws when they're broken, said Sheriff Richard Nugent. Incarceration costs a "small fortune" and doesn't solve the underlying problem that gets juveniles arrested.
He praised the gathering as a needed effort to address the social problems that cause young people to drop out of school and get in trouble.
"If they don't stay in school, we've lost them," Nugent said. "We need your help."
School superintendent Wayne Alexander recalled his own upbringing in a working-class Connecticut family. There were no books in the house that might interest a young boy, and a factory job was waiting for his 16th birthday, he said.
Preventing students like young Wayne from dropping out of school requires adults willing to step forward to help, he said.
"Ladies and gentlemen, it's not about reading and writing and arithmetic," Alexander added. "You have to hook them."
The gathering wasn't all doom and gloom. Representatives from a range of organizations spoke of promising local initiatives on teen pregnancy, early childhood education, domestic violence, dropout prevention and drug abuse.
And participants vowed to continue working together to prevent kids from slipping through the cracks.
Even children from harmonious families are affected when they share a classroom with a victim of domestic violence, said Morgan Moeller of the Dawn Center. Their test scores are lower and they have higher average discipline rates.
"We all have a sphere of influence where we can make a difference every day," she said.
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.