Spending Quanitity Time

GEORGE F. WILL

March 29, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

Baltimore. -- South of the Patapsco River, across from the glistening Inner Harbor, sprawls Cherry Hill, a neighborhood where, 50 years ago, public housing was built for white steelworkers who came to the city during the Second World War. Today the housing, much the worse for wear, is inhabited mostly by fragments of families that are poor and black.

It is an ocean of distress for adults and anger for children. Mark Shriver and his colleagues in The Choice Program are determined, with youth's noble disregard for daunting evidence, bail the ocean.

Choice is a low-budget, high-energy, labor-intensive, cost-effective program run by young adults willing to spend a year or more supervising troubled youths in this city's most troubled neighborhoods. The staff, divided into teams, is on call 24 hours a day, logging 200 miles a week on the wheezing cars they use to track and contact -- three to five times a day, 365 days a year -- the children assigned to them by public agencies.

Early each morning the staff gathers to pool information on the barely-on-the-rails lives of the young people Choice adheres to like a bandage. Choice's aims and methods are simple. The aim is to keep the children, ages 10 to 17, swaddled in attention. The method is, in basketball parlance, a full-court press.

The information is swapped briskly. One staff member is away, accompanying a child to court. One was "DR'ed" (disciplinary removal) from school yesterday and will spend a day at Choice headquarters receiving tutoring rather than spend the day on the streets or watching television.

One Choice staffer, a slight, young white woman from Texas, wearing a tailored suit, black pumps and glasses, reports that the previous night one of her young people did not check in, so she went out after him. Choice workers make it a point to know girlfriends, boyfriends and hang-outs. She found her young man loitering in a park. She required him to be home in 15 minutes. He is 17 and weighs 235 pounds. He did as required.

"Required"? Choice workers have almost no sanction except their moral authority, but they have lots of that because they are lavish with life's most precious commodity: time. "They respect you," says one of Mr. Shriver's recruits, "from seeing you so much."

When Mr. Shriver makes recruiting visits to campuses, he loses about half the interested people in the first interview when he explains the hours (60 to 70 a week, with 8 days off a year) and pay ($17,500). About half of the remaining half are lost when they take their first drive with a Choice worker "tracking" kids.

John Kane, 23, a Holy Cross graduate like Mr. Shriver, relishes the work because he is "living all the problems we read about." All the problems flow, he says, from three failures: "No values taught, no limits set, no consequences given." In the argot of Choice, "consequence" can be a verb, as in: "Darnell is missing school, so consequence him."

When the morning meeting ends, Mr. Kane and his colleagues fan out to schools, making sure they know where their kids are.

When the Choice children are not in school they are apt to be on the ragged edge of trouble, so the Choice staffers, not long gone from the comforts of middle-class homes and elite campuses, go searching down mean streets and into sour-smelling hallways.

Cherry Hill schools are plastered with posters addressing elemental subjects: "A baby costs $474 a month. How much change do you have in your pockets?" Choice encourages cost-benefit thinking. Baltimore spends between $40,000 and $60,000 to incarcerate a troubled child for a year. Choice requires just $6,100 in public and private money to monitor a child.

Today parents who would rather do something other than parent, assuage their guilt and disguise their neglect by saying they give their children "quality time." I have never heard a child ask for quality rather than quantity.

Choice's indefatigable young adults are supplemental and sometimes surrogate parents for "their" children. These children are fortunate only -- but this is a lot -- in getting from Choice both quantity and quality. This is a truth of parenting: Quality is apt to be a function of, not an alternative to, quantity.

For the children of Choice, the neighborhood is their world. Many of them have traveled the mile and a half to the Inner Harbor only two or three times in their circumscribed lives.

If their lives attain equilibrium, credit Mr. Shriver's credo, which is on a poster in his office. The poster is of a small black child and these words: "God made me. God don't make junk."

George Will is a syndicated columnist.

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