Wall Streeters finance havens for Harlem children


December 25, 1992|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,New York Bureau

NEW YORK -- About 60 blocks north of Broadway's glitzy musical district, there are few leading roles for children to play. Gangs, drugs and pregnancy are the main attractions on Harlem's ragged stretch of this celebrated street.

But a group of social workers supported by young Wall Street investment bankers are trying to turn this around. Together, the unlikely partners give 3,000 children a safe haven for at least a few hours each day.

As an alternative to the violence and aimlessness of the street, the central Harlem office of the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families gives pregnancy and drug counseling, organized sports and homework tutoring from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. each weekday.

MA While the center can count on city and state aid for its more

mainstream work, such as the sports program, the more controversial pregnancy counseling exists thanks to the Robin Hood Foundation, which the Wall Street investors formed three years ago.

The idea was to provide an alternative to traditional charity organizations that many of the twenty- and thirty-somethings saw as too stuffy, too bureaucratic and not willing to fight poverty their style: by taking risks on grass-roots organizations, venture-capital style; offering management and organizational expertise; and seeking strong leaders with visions for their communities.

"There are a lot of traditional charities but they often aren't willing to fund these smaller, more dynamic organizations. In a way, we're investing our money and want the best return. We think we get it from these groups," said Glenn R. Dubin, a Robin Hood founder and investment manager with Dubin & Swieca Capital Management Inc.

In its three years, Robin Hood has raised $25 million from New York City's financial, media and entertainment circles, building a $15 million endowment and disbursing $4 million this year. The group aims to raise another $6 million next year, disbursing $5 million and putting the remaining million in the endowment.

In true Wall Street fashion, the endowment also grows because of good investments. About 60 percent is invested in high-grade bonds and the rest in limited partnership funds. The rate of return is a cool 20 percent.

Norman Atkins, who at 30 is one of Robin Hood's two executive directors, said Robin Hood's strongest selling points to potential donors is that every dollar goes directly to one of the 60 New York organizations it has targeted for help. This is possible because Paul Tudor Jones II, the driving force behind Robin Hood, donates enough money to cover the foundation's overhead, salaries and other expenses, leaving other donations to fund programs. Mr. Jones, who runs Tudor Investment Corp., also oversees the investments.

(Mr. Jones' adroit investments in the futures markets have helped him amass a personal fortune estimated at $100 million and also periodically raised questions about possible violations of trading laws.

(He has used some of his fortune to assemble a 3,200-acre hunting preserve and wildlife sanctuary on Maryland's Eastern Shore, which has brought him further unwanted notoriety. Mr. Jones paid $2 million last year in fines and restitution after 86 acres of wetlands on his property were illegally filled in by his employee, William B. Ellen.

(Mr. Ellen's subsequent jail sentence, which recently took effect, has renewed interest in the case and Mr. Jones.)

Other New York groups also donate time to the foundation, including a law firm, management experts and professionals such as an architect who designed furniture that was built by homeless people in a job-training program supported by Robin Hood.

The foundation has successfully attracted the very 1980s baby boomers who were decried a few years back for losing their idealism.

The Rheedlen Center is a good example of the foundation's work. Led by Geoff Canada, a charismatic and intensely committed children's advocate, the group has set up its safe havens in three New York locations but had a hard time finding money for pregnancy counseling.

Robin Hood organizers, however, were impressed by the group's drive and funded the program. Unlike other organizations, they did not require that a minimum number of children be served, which can lead to mass processing of the poor so that the program can qualify for more aid, and were willing to put money into administration and Rheedlen's office costs, two areas that traditional charities usually ignore.

The result is a sensible program that teaches children maturity and responsibility, with the result that children learn to think through their decisions, including pregnancy, and avoid it until they are ready for it.

"For us, their help was extremely important. Teen pregnancy in central Harlem was so high that we had to get involved. They allowed us to expand services," Mr. Canada said.

In the center's cramped offices over a movie theater, Mr. Canada and his staff also coordinate outreach programs and a staff of volunteers from the business and professional world who help the children with their homework.

This sort of hands-on approach attracted Robin Hood, Mr. Atkins said. The foundation believes in street work, and never supports -- or rejects -- a group without a face-to-face evaluation. With more than 500 applications to the foundation's offices in New York's Wall Street district and only 20 new projects being taken on each year, the 10-person staff is stretched to its limit.

This staff includes only one full-time fund-raiser. The 10-person board of directors, which includes John F. Kennedy Jr. and Rolling Stone Publisher Jann S. Wenner, raises most money, Mr. Atkins said, primarily from "people who had made a lot of money in the 1980s and wanted to give something back."

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