March pushes care of youths Inspired by Edelman, thousands heed call to make lives better

'Stand for Children'

Advocates say cuts in congressional budget hurt family values

June 02, 1996|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Nearly 200,000 parents, children and their supporters filled the sweeping expanse from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial with blankets on the lawn and banners in the air, demanding better lives for America's children.

On a day so full of sunshine that it made their march more picnic than protest, they came to Washington to fight for the moral ground that conservatives opposed to big government and its social spending have seized.

They had been summoned by Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund, crusader and conscience of the child advocacy movement, who declared that the children of the world's richest country are in deep distress. They are under siege, she says, by congressional budget attacks on programs that benefit children.

In a voice modulated by her childhood as the daughter of a South Carolina preacher, Edelman stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial and exhorted the gathering to "stand for children," the theme of the march.

"We do not stand here advocating big government," Edelman said, capturing some of the rhetoric of her opponents. "We stand here advocating just government, government that doesn't give more to those who have and less to those who have not. We advocate cost-effective government, that does more to prevent than punish children's problems.

"We believe jobs and not jail should be the rite of passage to adulthood. We question the family values of anyone who is willing to spend $20,000 to lock our children up but not to spend $5,000 for Head Start."

The marchers gathered at 9 a.m., arriving after 12-hour bus rides from Nashville, Tenn., in planes from California, in strollers and wheelchairs, on bikes and in-line skates. They clogged the highways and jammed the subway.

At noon, after a morning of educational exhibits, music, song and dancing, thousands of children marched six-tenths of a mile across Memorial Bridge from Virginia, cheering and shouting the theme, Stand for Children.

Three Girls Scouts, one holding high an American flag, led the way. The throng of children marched, running and skipping to keep up and sending startled Park Police horses skittering as they passed. Their faces were flushed, with heat and excitement. Lincoln looked on, cool and serene.

In front marched Matthew Aehle, 10, a fifth-grader from Ashburton Elementary in Bethesda, wearing his fluorescent-orange safety-patrol belt and his patrol captain badge.

"I thought it might be cool to be on TV," he said, offering a big, camera-ready smile.

Keyetta Terrell, who will be 11 on June 18, was another Ashburton pupil, also wearing a safety-patrol belt. "I hope children never get hurt," she said. "That's why I came."

Chuck Melchior, 70, a retired city manager from suburban Philadelphia, held an intricately painted cardboard dinosaur over his head. He had written "Cold War" and "Military Budget" on the dinosaur, and he wanted to know why the government was spending on the Pentagon instead of on people.

"They're looking for votes," he said, giving his reason why politicians are eager to support social programs for the elderly but not for the young. "Where they see a group with political clout, they want to be on their side."

The marchers came alone and in groups, in matching T-shirts or not, with an agenda and without. About 3,500 organizations had endorsed the march, from senior citizens to labor unions and churches. The crowd included 200 parents and children -- the women wearing old-fashioned long skirts and scarves -- from the Bruderhof communities, which run about six communal living settlements in the Northeast.

"This is nonpartisan," said Kim Osmer, who runs a day care center in Baltimore's Canton neighborhood. "I'm here for the children."

She got on the train in Baltimore with her daughter, Emily, 2. Osmer, whose sister, Gracie Klein, 7, came along to help, said she sees many struggling parents who could benefit if they had government help in finding good day care. "There are some things that families have to fix themselves," she said, "but the government can help. More money should go directly to children they benefit from it."

Jacqui Mullin, who lives on Long Island, N.Y., brought her daughter Domenica, 12. "I thought it was good to show her she has a voice in things," she said. "I grew up in the '60s when we went to Washington to demonstrate against the war. I would like to see her generation feel empowered."

Dara Howe came 12 hours on a bus from Nashville with her family, including her mother and her son, Alex, 12, who is severely disabled from cerebral palsy. Howe and her husband, an engineer, needed to borrow $12,000 to modify their house to accommodate their son.

"Excuse me!" she said, in reference to criticism of the march by conservatives. "Why is it a bad thing for government to take responsibility for children?"

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