NEWS FEATURE: Little change in the year after volunteer summit

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c. 1998 Religion News Service

PHILADELPHIA _ Welcome to north Philadelphia, Revolutionary War battleground-turned-urban heartache.

On historic Germantown Avenue, amid graceful stone churches and abandoned houses, sits the Germantown Boy’s & Girl’s Club, its garden and freshly painted rooms still a testament to a spring day last year when 600 volunteers _ many in town for the much-trumpted Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future _ spruced the place up.

But little has changed at the Youth Project two miles east, where director Paula Cooper recently spent six months on unemployment after a federal grant ran out. Today Cooper, who continued managing her children’s program during her time on the dole, still stretches scarce dollars.

Like these two Philadelphia sites, across America the year-end report card for last year’s star-studded summit bringing political, religious, business and philanthropic leaders together to boost volunteerism and programs for the nation’s at-risk young people, is decidely mixed.

Some call last April’s summit and its promise _ to provide 2 million needy American children with a safe, healthy and nurturing environment by the year 2000 _ as powerfully embracing as the 1960s civil rights movement. Others call it mostly hype, as short-lived and shallow as the new paint slapped on at last year’s Germantown cleanup.

Moreover, interviews with academics, youth workers and government officials nationwide reveal profound disagreement over the premises girding the three-year drive.

Do more donated computers, playgrounds and manpower translate into fewer high-school dropouts and drug addicts? Will volunteerism outlive a one-day neighborhood cleanup or a three-year corporate pledge?

“Troubled teens are a complicated problem that isn’t solved by a weekend a month (of volunteering),” said Princeton University professor Julian Wolpert, who studies volunteerism. “When problems get to be messy and complicated, most Americans feel that requires some professional help.”

These questions may be critical, experts say, in the wake of cuts Washington has made in welfare and food stamps and other staples of federal largess.

So far, the Philadelphia summit has spun off dozens of mini-summits to plot local youth projects. A number of corporations, including LensCrafters and Oracle, have given generously _ in free eye care, in free computers, in free tutoring. Nationally, Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America reports a spurt of volunteers, but some local chapters like Philadelphia’s say the increase has been negligible.

And donations of time and equipment have rarely translated into new money for cash-strapped programs. The organization charged with carrying out the summit’s goals, America’s Promise _ The Alliance for Youth, has been criticized for being unfocused in its vision and arrogant in its beliefs.

Peter Gallagher, president of America’s Promise, says the organization’s big goals and short time frame naturally have led to growing pains.

“Like any other start-up organization, we’ve experienced some hiccups and challenges,” Gallagher said.

But over the past six months, he said, the organization has strengthened its relationship with nonprofits working with kids. And it has developed unspecified tools to measure whether hundreds of commitments _ from Columbia/HCA’s promise to immunize a million children to Fort Worth’s promise to “reach out” to 1,000 troubled youths _ will be met. By the year 2000, America’s Promise expects to be out of business, turning over its job to local efforts.

A snapshot of the summit’s fallout can be found on Germantown Avenue, one of Philadelphia’s roughest roads, where Gen. Colin L. Powell and President Bill Clinton joined thousands of volunteers last April to pick up trash and paint houses.

Some pitched in at Germantown’s 111-year-old Boy’s & Girl’s Club, an after-school refuge for more than 500 neighborhood children. When the summit ended, donations kept coming, said the club’s director, Doug Morgan. Allstate employees supervise kids in the afternoon. Coca-Cola is sponsoring a basketball league among the city’s seven clubs.

Those gifts have been enormously helpful, Morgan said. Besides, they are realistic. “Individual time is something you can go after readily,” he said. “Individuals’ pocketbooks are more difficult.”

A dozen blocks downtown, a jogger loops slow laps around a graffiti-free Marcus Foster Stadium, where Clinton launched his volunteerism pitch. Today, residents call a graffiti squad weekly to remove offending marks from their neighborhoods, said community leader Juanita Hatton.

But the cleanup and the summit’s goals only partially address the community’s problems, Hatton and others say. Only 26 percent of Philadelphia’s high school students have basic reading skills, according to city statistics. Math and science skills are even lower.

Philadelphia’s school dropout rates are nearly six times greater than in neighboring suburbs. Poverty rates are four times higher than those of neighboring counties combined.

“How can a child have a healthy start when we don’t have a supermarket, when we don’t have equal education?” Hatton asked, citing one summit goal.

Paula Cooper, too, needs more than donated time. A New York Times article last year on the youth summit featured Cooper’s cash-strapped Youth Project. That produced $1,500 in private donations and a few volunteers. But the slew of funding proposals Cooper sent to city and state agencies failed to produce the $80,000 yearly budget needed to float the project, which offers field trips and seminars to poor kids.

Today, she exists on almost a third of that budget, scraped together from small grants and fund-raising efforts. Some project events have been canceled. Volunteers may be helpful, Cooper said, but what’s really needed is money. “All of a sudden, volunteerism is a big thing,” she said. “Folks have been (working with kids) for a long time _ and the ones that have been doing this are struggling for funding.”

Lynn Curtis, president of The Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation, has his own problems with pro-bono work. “I think it’s inappropriate and unwise for businesses to give priority to volunteerism,” said Curtis, whose foundation recently released a report critical of the volunteerism espoused at the Philadelphia summit. “They should be giving priority to job creation.”

Local participation may be greater elsewhere. In Coachella Valley, Calif., home to both rich retirees and poor Hispanic immigrants, neighborhood groups are linking nonprofits with businesses offering free financial services, and setting up local youth task forces.

“Most of us have lived here at least 10 years and have been involved in other causes which have helped build up the community,” said Roger Radley, executive director of the Coachella Valley Alliance for Youth. “So it’s not fly-by-night. People get that really clearly.”

In other cases, nonprofits say the summit has directed a rare _ if showy _ spotlight on troubled children.

“I personally felt really fired up when I came back,” said Joe Higgins, a social worker in Grand Junction, Colo., who has worked with delinquent youths for 25 years. “There does seem to be a kind of hype … but the things that are more visible are the ones people pay more attention to.”

How effective America’s Promise will be is anybody’s guess. While the organization says it will ensure pledges are fulfilled, several chapter leaders say they lack the manpower to closely monitor local commitments.

But given the size and complexity of the youth initiative, some say a quick turnaround is impossible.

“It’s like Head Start,” said Georgetown University professor Virginia Hodgkinson, citing the popular federal preschool program. “It takes several years before you can truly measure progress.”


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