Vips Lead Volunteer `Army'

Political Stars Clean Philadelphia Streets As Part Of U.s. Summit

April 28, 1997|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PHILADELPHIA -- Resting his hands and head on the top of his broomstick, Jason Henderson gazed down a gritty cobblestone street that is typically strewn with broken bottles and litter and said he had never seen it as clean as it was yesterday.

"Unfortunately, it takes this kind of gathering to do what we should be doing anyway," said Henderson, 29, a community project manager and one of hundreds who helped clean up this graffiti-covered north Philadelphia neighborhood yesterday. "But if this is what it takes, this is what it takes."

Leading the extraordinary cleanup effort were no less than the Clintons, the Gores, two former presidents and their wives and retired Army Gen. Colin L. Powell who, dressed in Sunday casuals, picked up paintbrushes and brooms to kick off a star-studded summit on voluntarism here.

"Are you ready to go to work?" Clinton shouted to an exuberant group of 5,000 who packed a high school stadium yesterday morning.

"Yes!" shouted volunteers in a sea of multicolored T-shirts.

To set the stage for the high-voltage Presidents' Summit for America's Future -- for which businesses and community organizations throughout the country have pledged both money and volunteer time for the nation's poor -- Clinton made his own promise.

He said the departments of Defense and Transportation would each mentor or tutor 1 million children over the next four years.

"I want to redefine the meaning of citizenship in America," Clinton said. "To be a good citizen, you have to obey the law, you've got to go to work or be in school, you've got to pay your taxes and -- oh, yes -- you've got to serve in your community to help make it a better place."

Scores of celebrities, politicians and business and community leaders from all over the country have poured into the city for the three-day event intended to focus on providing resources -- through widespread voluntarism -- to the nation's needy, especially children.

"It's good to have an army again," Powell, chairman of the summit, beamed to the youthful crowd at Marcus Foster Stadium. "I love it."

Joining Clinton and Powell yesterday were former Presidents George Bush and Jimmy Carter. Former President Gerald R. Ford and Nancy Reagan, filling in for her ailing husband, are to participate in today's events.

"Today we're just Americans," Bush said at the pep rally. "Not Republicans, not Democrats, not Jews or gentiles, not rich or poor or black or white. Today we are Americans united by a common commitment to our country."

From there, the VIP work crew hit the streets, pitching in to help clean an 8-mile avenue marred by boarded windows, bullet holes and razor-wire fences.

Clinton, hobbling along on crutches, slapped beige paint on the wall of a pool house, careful to avoid dripping on his suede shoes. Bush and Carter, along with their wives, painted abandoned buildings, while Red Cross President Elizabeth Hanford Dole served food to volunteers.

For his part, Powell picked up garbage on a lot littered with liquor bottles, syringes and tattered furniture, and chatted with some in the neighborhood, occasionally offering stern advice.

"What you've got to do is not let it get dirty again," he told a boy.

In fact, while many were skeptical about what would happen next week -- after the cameras and politicians were gone -- some were inspired by the participants and the nonpartisan nature of the event.

"I wasn't sure when I came this morning if this would last," said Sally Caslon, 55, as she swept a stretch of pavement. "Now I'm sure. There are three sets of presidents here. You don't see those people all together like that."

Later yesterday, Powell spoke with leaders of youth organizations, including the Maryland Youth Service Action Committee that pledged to encourage youth groups across the state to engage in community service.

And last night, at a celebrity gala featuring such stars as Tony Bennett and Oprah Winfrey, the past and present presidents and first ladies handed out the 1997 President's Service Awards to volunteers from around the country, including Amber Lynn Coffman, 15, of Glen Burnie.

Amber, who began volunteering at age 8 with her mother, was honored for her work with Happy Helpers for the Homeless, a group she started in 1993 that delivers food and blankets to people living on the streets of Baltimore and Glen Burnie.

Pub Date: 4/28/97

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