Calling Mrs. Forbes: We Need You Now

March 21, 1995|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Kansas City. -- These days, Jim Caccamo is thinking a lot about Mrs. Forbes.

When the exuberant director of Partnership for Children was growing up, she was the eyes and ears on his childhood street. By the time he got home from playing ball, she'd already given his parents a full report of any misbehavior.

Back then, he says, ''there were responsible adults everywhere. You couldn't get away with a thing.'' Today, Mrs. Forbes is as rare as a milkman.

The concentric circles of responsible adults that buffered and shaped children's lives have disappeared one by one. The neighbors are minding their own business. The corner storekeepers have gone to the mall. The ''old heads,'' the respected elders, have moved or been intimidated into silence. The parents have gone to work, or sometimes just gone.

Children are like the cheese in the old nursery rhyme: the kid stands alone.

For all the reams of research and the endless social jargon, the current troubled state of children in America can be summed up pretty much in one sentence. There aren't enough caring adults in their lives. Most of the adults that children now see live inside a television set.

But this year Kansas City leaders have embarked on a hugely ambitious attempt to reverse this trend. They have eagerly embraced the concept of mentoring. This is a movement based on the recognition that the best, maybe the only, way to reach kids in trouble is by breaking through their isolation with caring, mature adults who forge one-to-one relationships.

Mentor programs have sprung up in a number of places. But in Kansas City they aren't looking for 10 or 30 mentors -- a few good men and women. The city is looking for 30,000 good men and women.

As Jim Caccamo, one of the guiding hands behind YouthFriends, admits cheerfully, ''Nobody has tried it on this scale.'' They aren't just trying to create a program, but in effect, to encourage a whole new norm.

YouthFriends is a collaborative effort of schools, non-profit agencies and community leaders. Within three years, they plan to have the full number of adult volunteers matched with children from 5 to 17 years old in six school districts. They have already put coordinators in schools, and plan to recruit the first 10,000 over the spring and summer for a fall start.

This idea grew out of Kansas City's intensive focus on changing the lives of its children. In 1992, the business and charitable establishments of this self-proclaimed ''livable city'' gave their hometown a D-plus on the condition of its kids' lives.

Among other woes, the violent crime rate here is 70 percent higher than the national average. Last fall, the metropolitan area became a test site for ''Squash It,'' an anti-violence program begun at the Harvard School of Public Health. But again and again, the kids in ''Squash It'' meetings expressed the same longing. They said, ''We just need someone to talk to."

Meanwhile, local school superintendents like Jim Hensley were saying, ''I need more people to engage with the kids. Most adults have no idea what a crisis they are in.''

Like the others in YouthFriends, Mr. Caccamo believes ''We really do have a lot of adults who want to do something but don't know what.'' Many worry as well about taking on too much of a responsibility. So, from the outset, YouthFriends will offer a range of commitments with a lot of support. The hope is that a small commitment to, say, a weekly hour of math tutoring, will build into a long-term relationship.

But ultimately this is about more than matchmaking. As Jan Kreamer of the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation says, ''In a sense we are trying to re-create a community.'' An adult who gets involved with a schoolchild will get involved with the schools. A mentor will be more than a taxpayer.

If the old adage is true, it still takes a village to raise a child. But today the village has practically disappeared.

For those us who remember our own Mrs. Forbes, it's startling to see how quickly that happened. Pull the right threads and the social fabric comes unraveled like a sweater. It's much, much harder to get it back together. In Kansas City, they are asking for 30,000 hands to begin the knitting.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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