Founder assesses efficacy of nonprofit organization

Providing drug treatment, job training is goal of philanthropist Soros

April 29, 2000|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

It didn't take long for billionaire philanthropist George Soros to ignore the power players surrounding him at an event in his honor yesterday -- and to head directly into a conversation with the kids he is trying to help.

Taking a tour of Baltimore's Living Classrooms Foundation -- one of the nonprofit organizations funded by the Baltimore branch of his Open Society Institute -- Soros stopped to talk to three young men working in a foundation program to teach juvenile offenders carpentry skills.

"Did you work as a runner?" Soros asked one, referring to a common job on Baltimore's drug corners.

The young man nodded, then said: "The legal way's good, too."

During his brief visit to the city to attend meetings of his foundation's national and local boards, the man who has made Baltimore a laboratory for his philanthropic experiments tried to determine whether they had borne fruit.

Soros, 69, sat in a wooden rocker made for him by youths in the program and talked with Baltimore Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson, who described his recent unsuccessful campaign for an extra $25 million to help city drug addicts receive treatment and support services.

Attracted by former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's advocacy of drug treatment on demand, Soros, who has made billions speculating in world currency markets, announced three years ago that he planned to spend at least $25 million in Baltimore over five years. His goal was to open a foundation office where education, creation of jobs and drug treatment could be addressed simultaneously.

Last night, he said it was too early to assess how well the programs are working.

"I think that we are making a difference, but I honestly don't know how much. I realize it's early yet," Soros said.

Soros, an outspoken opponent of the mass incarceration of drug addicts, expressed dismay last night upon learning that Baltimore officials had received an $8 million increase in the recently passed state budget to help addicts become and stay clean. They had requested a $17 million increase, but Gov. Parris N. Glendening said he wanted to see compelling evidence that city treatment systems were effective before he commited more funds.

Soros' foundation disbursed grants totaling about $2 million last year for outreach, case management and other programs for Baltimore drug addicts.

At Living Classrooms, the Open Society Institute committed $160,000 over two years to a new work-force development program, which will use databases and intensive monitoring to help young people secure and keep jobs for five years after they learn new skills.

As Soros questioned the young men in the organization's carpentry shop, he learned that they were pleased with the opportunities they're being given.

"You learn how to keep a dress code," one said. "You learn how to get a GED. You got weekly goals that you do. It's something good."

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