Volunteerism In Search Of Victories

Presidential Summitry: Clinton, Bush, Ford, Carter Urge Mentoring To Save At-risk Kids.

April 29, 1997

WHAT A LONG ROAD it has been from Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" to the "Presidents' Summit on Service" at Philadelphia's Independence Hall this week. The former relied on big money supplied by big government in what is generally regarded today as a failed program; the latter relies on big volunteerism supplied by what President Clinton calls "big citizenship."

On the surface this may seem like so much sloganeering, and it really will be just that if there isn't targeted follow-through to rescue an estimated 15 million at-risk young Americans.

What specifically is needed is an army of mentors -- tens of thousands of adults -- to help kids one-on-one to appreciate the advantages of education, hard work and staying out of trouble. This is not a new concept. Indeed it is Big Brothers and Big Sisters writ large, backed by an alliance between corporate America and a variety of non-profit organizations to provide coherence and some of the fiscal punch government can no longer afford.

The goal is to "save" 2 million young people by the year 2000 by tripling the number of dedicated mentors to 1 million. Studies indicate that at-risk children who receive the attention of a concerned adult are far less likely to drop out of school, use drugs or be lured into criminal activity.

Coming five years after the election in which former President Bush was ridiculed for his "Points of Light" program, the notion of volunteerism seems to have broken free of the bonds of partisanship. In Philadelphia yesterday, former Democratic and Republican presidents (Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George Bush and Ronald Reagan as represented by wife Nancy) joined Mr. Clinton in pleading with Americans to provide personal time -- often more precious than money -- to help disadvantaged youth. Their aim was to put both business and organized labor behind the mentoring crusade and induce schools to follow Maryland's lead in requiring students to do community service as a requirement for graduation.

The president also announced plans to double the number of AmeriCorps scholarships, but the emphasis needs to remain on the private sector and on private citizens. While a "Protest Summit" was organized nearby to rail against welfare reform and to demand more government training, education, jobs and health care programs, its agenda was out of sync with current political fashion. The odds are that progress can be made only by augmenting government programs with a massive increase in volunteerism.

Pub Date: 4/29/97

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