L.A. riots shook loose federal money for churches' summer youth programs

A TUESDAY INTERVIEW/Q&A

July 21, 1992|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Staff Writer

As summer began, Cynthia Carson was trying to coordinate summer youth programs at area churches on a shoestring, depending on donations and volunteer efforts.

Then the Los Angeles rioting led to an outpouring of federal money. Ms. Carson found herself helping organize a quarter-million-dollar program -- blending state and church resources -- serving 1,700 children at 34 sites around the city.

As assistant for programs at the Central Maryland Ecumenical Council, a 75-year-old organization of Catholic and Protestant churches, Ms. Carson was one of the people turning the deluge into a productive stream that would make its way to parched fields.

QUESTION: Was it the verdict in the Rodney King case that led to these programs?

ANSWER: We had been working on our plans for some time, and started talking with the state in early June. That was post-Los Angeles, but at that time Congress was still discussing [whether] funds would be available.

Certainly the federal money did stem from the King riots, and the concern of much of the community -- the level of awareness -- came from them, too.

But what was occurring was an honest attempt by the state and churches to try to meet the needs of the children by working together. This is not always the easiest thing to do.

Q: How did the current program come about?

A: We had been looking at existing programs in our churches. Often these were vacation Bible schools that lasted only one or two weeks, although other churches had extensive programs that included tutorials, cultural enrichment activities . . . those sorts of things.

We were trying to figure out a way to extend these programs, and the governor's office helped us get corporate donations.

At the same time, the State Department of Education was trying to fund five sites that would serve 3,000 children, teaching them an ecology course with field trips and other activities, at a projected cost of $900,000. When state funding dried up for that, decided to combine efforts.

Q: When was this?

A: Mid-June. Everything started happening very, very quickly. We shook hands and said that we would work together. Frankly, we had some difficulty. As the state department began coordination, churches found themselves in the chain of command, and they don't work too well that way. It was a learning experience.

We had churches to locate. We finally agreed on a budget on the basis of 50 children per site at a cost of $160 a head with the public funds matching the $8,000 grants that had been raised from the private sector.

When we took all this to our directors, their first reaction was that there was no way it could happen, that we had already been working on our own camps for six months. It was the good faith of these people not wanting to leave the children out that made it happen.

Q: So what are the kids getting from the state?

A: The State Department of Education is offering its Eco-Fun educational program. It's learning activities around an ecological theme. They learn about water, farm animals. There's a field trip every week.

There's a distinction between the time of day that program is being taught and when we might want to share our faith or talk about something that is specific to the churches. Everyone is keeping to that.

Q: How about from the churches?

A: The churches were most interested in issues of conflict-resolution -- helping kids deal with the situations that they find on the streets right now.

The churches want to take up that responsibility . . . to their communities -- to teach children who they are so they can learn a deep respect for humanity.

We want to give older children the opportunity to sit down and discuss conflict resolution, the causes of violence in their community, so they can develop an awareness of their interdependence, the need they have for one another.

Q: How do you go about teaching that concept?

A: A number of the churches have programs along these lines. At one, everyone is building a little hut. When someone who has a particular job doesn't show up, the whole project comes to a halt. They realize how they have to work together, that they are all inter-related. When you learn something like that as a child, you don't forget it.

One aspect of this is that white and black churches sat down together, in many cases for the first time. They were all aware that people feel government money in programs like this just goes down a sinkhole, and they all realize that money is not going to buy people's way out of these problems.

There has to be another solution. To find that, churches have to become an active part of their communities in such a way that people know that they are there, that their doors are open. . . .

That's the hope, that the doors that we open to the children this summer will remain open. And we've got all sorts of churches involved, from big Gothic buildings to storefronts.

Q: Are programs like these needed?

A: There's a tremendous need.

Sometimes these children have no place to go other than the streets. For slightly older children, they are watching things in their neighborhood that they really cannot put in context. They either have to buy into it or they have to come up with another model to make their perspective broad enough so that they can get beyond it.

Many of our youth are looking for an alternative to what they see on the streets. And many children are appearing at our churches without parents -- they are really looking for family.

Some of these children have seen friends die.

The only money they see comes from drugs or something else illegal.

At very young ages, they are responsible for children. It is just more than they can handle.

There's a thirst for something more, something that's not about materialism, that's not about just surviving. They are calling out, saying that they are worth more than this, that they need more than this.

We hope these programs can provide them with a little more.

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