With Philadelphia’s historic Independence Hall as a backdrop, an impressive gathering of dignitaries is scheduled next week to issue a national call for more Americans to help the nation’s youths.
President Clinton and former Presidents George Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Gerald R. Ford will roll up their sleeves to set examples performing good deeds around the city for the Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future. Retired Gen. Colin L. Powell will serve as the general chairman for the April 27-29 event, and former first lady Nancy Reagan is expected to represent her ailing husband.
The summit bills itself as an attempt to focus the nation’s sense of civic responsibility on its young people. And despite the all-star cast, organizers say the effort is more than a massive photo opportunity staged around the theme of national service.
“Clearly, this will represent a chance for political leaders and corporate leaders to be identified with an issue that has broad public support,” said Robert Goodwin, who heads the Points of Light Foundation, one of the event’s two primary organizers. “But we have established a threshold for commitment and action that will obligate those who are participating to follow through with their commitments.”
The summit participants will stress the responsibility of citizens to ensure that children have five ingredients for success: a continuing relationship with a caring adult; a safe place and constructive activities outside of school; access to health care; education toward a marketable skill; and a chance to perform community service.
Organizers pledge to mobilize individuals, educators, nonprofit organizations, corporations, and religious groups to ensure that 2 million more young people have access to all those ingredients, and that another 5 million have access to at least one of them by 2000, when a follow-up summit is planned.
While the presidents and a host of actors, musicians, and other celebrities draw the spotlight, the real work will be carried out by some 1,500 delegates from across the country, chosen by representatives of local United Way organizations, municipal officials, and volunteer groups in each community.
With help from an array of community leaders, from educators to teenage heads of youth groups, the delegates plan a series of meetings to swap ideas and draft plans to meet the summit’s goals. Educators can expect a big pitch for more schools to include service learning as part of the regular curriculum.
The delegates have been given specific marching orders. In a letter sent to them this month, summit organizers detailed how many young people in each community will have to be reached to meet the overall goal of 2 million.
Amid the exchange of ideas, the organizers will showcase examples of what can happen when community service works. Examples like Antwan Robinson.
In two years, the 18-year-old has gone from chronic absenteeism to academic success, heading toward straight A’s in his sophomore year at Philadelphia’s William Penn High School.
He gives much of the credit to Frank Cervone, a lawyer who has met with him once or twice a month for the past year.
They have lunch, see movies, or make excursions to such events as the ballet. On Sunday evenings, the two gab on the phone about subjects ranging from school to Mr. Robinson’s hope of becoming an optometrist.
“I’m amazed that this relationship means so much,” Mr. Cervone said. “For a teenager to reach out to an adult for a relationship is extremely unusual. I think that in their relationships with adults they see a bit of their future, and that can be a positive vision or a negative one.”
The relationship was forged through Sponsor-A-Scholar, a Philadelphia program started in 1991 that matches mentors with students, who also receive $6,000 for college.
More than a chance to showcase programs like Sponsor-A-Scholar, the summit is a chance for more people like Mr. Cervone to see the effect they can have through community service, organizers of the event say.
“A big thrust of the summit and what happens after it is finding the best examples for the five conditions for success and spreading them,” said Harris L. Wofford Jr., the former U.S. senator who now heads the Corporation for National Service. The federally funded organization, which administers service programs such as AmeriCorps, is the event’s other primary organizer.
‘A Quantum Leap’
The summit began as the brainchild of the late George W. Romney, the former Michigan governor who was U.S. secretary of housing and urban development during the Nixon administration. Before his death in 1995, Mr. Romney outlined plans for a gathering of all the living U.S. presidents to focus the nation’s attention on the role of service.
“He wanted to break out of the box of volunteering being something nice but on the periphery,” Mr. Wofford said last week.
Former President Bush, who will serve with President Clinton as the event’s honorary co-chairmen, agreed more than a year ago to participate, as long as the summit was not billed as a White House event and it took place after the 1996 election, said Mr. Goodwin of the Points of Light Foundation. Founded by President Bush in 1990, the Washington-based nonprofit organization helps link volunteers with causes in hundreds of communities.
Since the election, the summit’s focus has narrowed even more on the need to provide greater opportunities for young people.
Some Raise Questions
Despite such an apparently unassailable goal, the event has not escaped criticism.
Claiming it is part of a larger drive to replace government support programs with volunteerism, a New York City-based organization called the National People’s Campaign is organizing dozens of buses to carry demonstrators to Philadelphia.
There has also been debate among the event’s planners over the proper balance between emphasizing the service responsibilities of adults and the service opportunities of children.
“I think there’s been quite a bit of attention on what adults can do for young people,” said author Jeremy Rifkin, a Points of Light Foundation board member. “But I think an equal amount of attention needs to be given to what kids and communities can do for themselves.”
Some youth groups have complained that the vast majority of people on the initial list of delegates were age 25 or older. In recent weeks, however, organizers have invited more younger participants and formed more events around the contributions of youth groups.
“We have had to constantly check ourselves to ensure there is proportionate representation of the resources that are already engaged,” Mr. Goodwin said.
Organizers also are working to counter the inevitable charges that the summit will make three days of headlines, but have little long-term effect.
“There have been many great events that became just a published report,” said Rick Little, the president of the Baltimore-based International Youth Foundation.
Planners tapped Mr. Little to become the president and chief executive officer of the summit’s follow-up effort, America’s PromiseThe Alliance for Youth. Gen. Powell will serve as chairman.
With contributions including a $1 million grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, America’s Promise will monitor progress in reaching the summit’s goals and assist groups in expanding their service efforts.
“There’s a vast amount of training that will be required,” Mr. Little said, adding just one example: “We’re looking at tens of thousands or perhaps millions of new mentors and tutors over the next few years.”
Since organizers formally announced the summit in January, dozens of businesses and organizations--from the Boys and Girls Clubs of America to the Taco Bell Foundation--have made pledges.
Philadelphia-based Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America, for example, pledged early on to double the size of its corps of adult mentors to 200,000 by the end of the decade.
“None of us are naive or cynical enough to think voluntary action alone is going to turn the tide for America’s kids,” Mr. Little said. “But we know that communities can and should do more, and that corporations can and should do more.”