Seeking To Turn Summit Promises Into Service
The nation's corporate leaders, nonprofit officials, and past and present chief executives made scores of promises last week at the Presidents' Summit for America's Future, but it will fall on people like L. Nathan Hare to make sure they're kept.
As a delegate to the April 27-29 event from Buffalo, N.Y., Mr. Hare spent much of his time here helping draft a plan for his community to do its part in meeting the summit's overall goal: giving 2 million more young Americans the tools to succeed by 2000.
The Buffalo delegation now envisions a network of community centers around the city--safe places where students can stay as late as 9 p.m. to work with volunteers who will tutor them, help with homework, and run other after-school programs.
"If we can move kids from the street to organized after-school, out-of-school activities, we will have won," said Mr. Hare, who heads Erie County's department of youth services. As he prepared to head home last week, he admitted the plan would take an investment of both expertise and money.
"Whatever we can't get from our corporate community, we'll beg and borrow from our state and local government," he said, adding that he was optimistic. "I think this summit has placed enough of an emphasis on [volunteering] that if we take advantage of it right now, we can enact a fundamental change."
With pleas from national figures ranging from retired Gen. Colin L. Powell to talk-show host Oprah Winfrey, the summit's leaders urged more Americans to donate their time on behalf of children considered to be at-risk.
Former Presidents George Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Gerald R. Ford joined President Clinton in focusing volunteerism on five elements they said children need to succeed: an adult mentor, health, organized activities in a safe place, education for work skills, and a chance to serve the community. ("Summit To Issue Call for Service in Name of Youths," April 23, 1997.) Organizers stressed that while government has a role in providing services, a substantial corps of volunteers is needed to provide one-on-one contact between adults and young people.
As the summit's dignitaries gave speeches and took part in a massive one-day street clean-up, the local delegates--about 10 from each of roughly 140 communities--drafted their plans for enlisting volunteers.
The delegation from Providence, R.I., drafted a plan to find 2,000 volunteers to tutor students and create 500 neighborhood homework sites over the next three years. Providence also is planning to hold a local summit next fall.
"Part of our strategy was to set our sights on things that were not too contentious, so we can have a feeling of success," said delegate Mary Sylvia Harrison, a member of Rhode Island's state board of regents for elementary and secondary education.
Many participants were hopeful that the heavily publicized event would boost the number of volunteers, especially if all the corporations and organizations that made summit-related commitments honor their pledges.
The National Education Association-Retired, for instance, announced it would train more than 1,000 retired teachers to work as volunteers tutoring younger children in reading.
The federal government also anteed up. President Clinton pledged to tap the departments of Defense and Transportation to provide tutoring and mentoring to 2 million children over the next four years.
Some of the mentoring is expected to come from older students. The 12-year-old Campus Compact program, which helps colleges and universities work community service into their curricula, pledged to raise the number of volunteer hours given annually at member schools from 543,000 to 750,000 in 2000.
The Denver-based Education Commission of the States, which founded Campus Compact, announced plans for a similar effort at the K-12 level.
A study released last week by the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics indicates that students respond positively to calls for service. Ninety-three percent of students who were asked to volunteer actually did so, compared with 24 percent of those who were not asked, according to the 1996 National Household Education Survey.
Some summit participants cautioned that even though the effort is based on volunteerism, that doesn't make it free. Recruiting individuals to mentor children one-on-one, as the summit encouraged, is more time-consuming and costly than getting volunteers to pitch in for a one-day street clean-up or building project.
Supporting more volunteers will likely require nonprofit agencies across the country to hire more staff members, added Linda Selvin, who helps run the School Volunteer Program, which recruits tutors for children in New York City schools. Of her program's 38 staff members, 20 are devoted to training and supporting its 9,300 volunteer tutors.
"If there's money out there, I think it can work," she said.
As the summit drew to a close, many delegates said the event's biggest benefit may be in encouraging so many municipal, social service, and education organizations to put their heads together on reaching one goal.
"There are scores of groups doing this," said delegate John A. Riggs, the president of the Little Rock, Ark., school board. "Now it becomes part of the master plan for America dealing with its youth."