Speaker: Edmund Benson

Making a Difference as Elders

Florida businessman Edmund F. Benson, together with his wife Susan, declined to rest on their laurels when their well-earned retirement began.  Instead, the energetic and service-committed couple in some ways just began (again) their service journeys during their golden years.  They devoted their retirement to establishing the ARISE Foundation in 1986, a global skills-teaching program for at-risk youth.  The Foundation has had a remarkable history and impact, from its initial focus on environmental education for young people to now addressing a range of needs for the young, the elderly, and many populations in between.

ARISE currently provides a range of evidence-based life skills curricula for at-risk youth.  It offers interactive, entertaining, easy-to-understand lessons about important topics such as anger management, self-esteem, peer pressure, gang avoidance, drug and alcohol prevention, the power of networking, interviewing and keeping a job, domestic abuse, etiquette and manners, conflict resolution, bullying and violence prevention, health and hygiene, stress management, stranger safety and much more.  The ARISE life-skills lessons are not sequential.  Each stands on its own, making them ideal for transient populations.  Everyone starts fresh with each new learning experience.

The organization also offers staff training that enhances the effectiveness of those on the front lines who care for troubled youth and adolescents.  ARISE lessons have a memorable impact on troubled youth because, for the most part, they are conducted by ARISE-trained group facilitators who carry out guided group discussions with exciting activities that are easily understood and put into practice.  ARISE group facilitators inspire conversation, involvement and interest.

ARISE life-management skills curricula are used in public, alternative and charter schools, juvenile justice facilities, residential treatment centers, faith-based organizations, Salvation Army, Boys and Girls Clubs, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s After School All-Stars program and organizations that educate orphans and other troubled youth around the world.  The programs are written for underachieving pre-k, elementary, and middle school children, teens, and young adults with limited reading and writing capabilities.  The ARISE life-management skills program succeeds with youth who have behavior issues and special needs.

As of 2009, the ARISE Foundation had trained and certified over five thousand group facilitators who have taught over four million documented hours of ARISE life-skills lessons in Florida alone. ARISE programs are also used throughout the US, in Canada, Jamaica, England, Australia, the Bahamas, Bermuda, New Zealand, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Bosnia and Kazakhstan.  For his 80th birthday in 2009, Benson gifted to the international nonprofit community the creative licenses for all of the 100 ARISE life-skills curricula materials.  Benson has allowed the materials to be translated free of charge into any language (except Spanish, which has been done), for use in life-skills training programs around the world.  The curricula are also available online, as are some of the training programs.

Beginning in 1996 the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice started using all of ARISE Life Skills programs in their major facilities throughout the state of Florida.  "Once the program was funded, we went into all the juvenile justice facilities in Florida. We train guards and they teach the curriculum to the incarcerated 12 to 18-year-olds. We teach ethical behavior," Benson said. 

Benson understands firsthand the hardships faced by high school dropouts and at-risk youth, because he took that difficult path himself.  "I started this program because I was once one of these troubled kids," he said. "I just wanted to prevent kids from following in the footsteps of those locked up."

Though perhaps troubled as a youth, Benson by the age of 21 had established a sales organization which grew into a chain of 18 furniture rental showrooms with locations stretching from Boston to Austin, TX.  Since his first retirement in 1982, he has devoted 100 percent of his time and energy to sharing the life skills he learned the hard way with youth – and now with adults over 60.

After spending over thirty years developing life skills programs for at-risk youth, Benson soon realized that people over 60 also needed specific life skills to successfully navigate their non-working years, remaining relevant with their grandchildren, achieving happiness without a career or job as center stage, and much more.  So he embarked on a new quest and spent almost two years researching the material specifically to conduct group discussions with seniors on 1,000+ topics.  He developed a new program called “Constructive Aging,” consisting of guided group discussions that inspire the 60+ generations to live positive, vibrant lives and to improve with age.  Benson has conducted these programs at local organizations in Jupiter, Florida where he lives.  Benson is also working with a neighborhood high school to train the high school students to go into a senior living facility (independent living, nursing home, community center) and interview the older adults and write or video their life stories that can be shared with their children and grandchildren.

And Benson’s latest endeavor is “Positivity Cards”.  "You've been noticed doing something good," the cards read.  They were developed because Benson found that working with at-risk populations can be difficult.  “The kids are tough and the staff have to deal with difficult situations. It is hard to be positive in this environment.”  In an effort to change the culture in juvenile justice facilities and alternative school environments, Benson encouraged ARISE trainings participants to look at what the youth were doing good and compliment them, even for a very small deed that was good.  Receiving a card saying “You Have Been Noticed Doing Something good” changed someone’s day form negative to positive and this had a ripple effect as the day went on.  Benson hands out positivity cards all day long – at the supermarket, when he gets a haircut, at a doctor’s appointment, walking in the mall, at the gym wherever he goes.  He is known as the “Positivity Card Man”. There are now 260 uplifting cards in this collection available on the ARISE website.

Join us in conversation with this remarkable change leader and can-do positivity man!

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