Social conscience

Anna Quindlen

April 05, 1991|By Anna Quindlen

JERSEY CITY, N.J. — THE NUNS who run The Nurturing Place here will never forget what Freddie said at the seashore. Almost none of the kids had ever seen the ocean before; their faces, when they came over the dunes and saw the water spread before them in all its fractious glory, were something to see.

But Freddy captured the undercurrent of all their little lives after they went out to dinner and came back to the beach. The first one over the crest of sand, he turned to say triumphantly, "It's still there."

There are 52 kids at The Nurturing Place, an early childhood education program that is part of the York Street Project. Some of them are the children of the women who attend Kenmare, the project's high school for female dropouts. Some are the children who live in St. Joseph's Home, its residence for homeless women and their children.

And many are children who suspect that if you find something wonderful, it will disappear if you turn your back.

All are 5 and under.

There are other children at the York Street Project. They are the teen-age children of the middle class, who come here to work with kids who may never in their lives have had a permanent address.

In the soft glow of the aquarium they rock the little ones at nap time, or sit at tiny tables and spoon macaroni and cheese into tiny mouths. The little kids feel loved. And the teen-agers, who in middle-class America risk thinking that a bad perm is a personal tragedy, gain a social conscience.

Any adult who attended Catholic school remembers pagan babies. The name makes me cringe. We scraped together nickels in an intramural rivalry to see which class could send more money to children in Africa and South America, children we named Bernadette and Thomas.

We are no longer so ham-handed, but the chance of our children believing that the world is composed largely of people like them remains great. Many of us raise our families in communities that are homogeneous economically and racially, gazing in a mirror.

"South Bronx, South Africa" I saw spray-painted on a wall in the South Bronx, and it would have seemed hyperbolic had I not just ridden on a subway train whose passengers were all African-American once north of Manhattan.

The girls from Mount St. Mary or Immaculate Heart Academy are crossing some lines at The Nurturing Place. At 17, many of them know more about the homeless than most adults.

They know that the bundle of rags in a doorway is only one part of the problem, and that thousands of homeless Americans are children.

They know that when those kids first arrive at The Nurturing Place they never stop eating, because they have known hunger so profound. They know that by the last week of every month, those whose mothers rely on welfare will be ravenous at breakfast.

And so they know what most of America does not: that the welfare allotment is woefully inadequate.

They also know that the homeless are lovable.

The students who come to The Nurturing Place are kids a parent could be proud of. Some are fulfilling school requirements in Christian Service, and some just like working with toddlers.

During spring vacation they could have been hanging out at the mall, scoping out potential romance.

Instead they rise at 5 a.m. in pleasant homes on pleasant streets to serve juice to children who believe the ocean will disappear because no good things last.

"I usually feel guilty when I get home," says one young woman. "I go into my room and I look at all my stuff."

This is a terrific thing, this acknowledgment of blessings. It is why The Nurturing Place is benefiting the big kids as well as the little ones. It is why more arrangements like this could benefit us all.

While we work to give our children Reeboks and ski trips and concert tickets, sometimes what gets lost is social responsibility and an understanding of the humanity of people who have less.

It's hard work to raise the kids at The Nurturing Place. But it's hard work to raise them in other places, too.

And if they grow into adulthood bright and healthy and selfish, blind to the dark places right next door to their sunny suburbs, then they are half-people and those of us who are their parents are failures.

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