WASHINGTON — Slipped into the President's State of the Union address, almost drowned out by the calls to military glory, was another pledge to illuminate the darker alleys of this society with "a thousand points of light."
We've heard that high-flown phrase so often that its repetition--as homelessness, drug killings and teen pregnancies persist--all but invites cynical laughter. What few realize, however, is that, for more than two years, the White House has had a program to switch those lights on. How that effort is going won't do much to dispel anybody's cynicism.
The Office on National Service--as the "points of light" initiative is known--is directed by C. Gregg Petersmeyer, a longtime Bush protege who is respected even by the project's critics. His job is to locate the most admirable volunteers and volunteer groups across America and designate them as Daily Points of Light. Conveniently enough, by the 1992 elections, 1,000 will have been awarded.
By throwing the prestige of the White House behind those efforts and promoting volunteerism in general, the Administration hopes to build a nationwide volunteer movement--which, they say, will be far more successful at eradicating social ills than the Big Government programs Republicans so often oppose.
If ordinary folks can just be persuaded to pitch in to tackle problems in their own communities, Bush and Petersmeyer insist, cocaine addiction, illiteracy, even the loneliness of the elderly can be whipped.
Unfortunately, not even those groups singled out for White House honorifics have realized any significant increase in volunteer support. Charlene Johnson is director of REACH, Inc., a project of Detroit's 12th Street Missionary Baptist Church. REACH, which helps buy crack-houses, renovates them with unemployed laborers and sells them to drug-free families, became Daily Point of Light 10 on Dec. 6, 1989. But Johnson calls the experience "a bit of a disappointment."
REACH received a smattering of local publicity when the award was announced, Johnson said, "But it really hasn't had an awful lot of impact." Her organization still limps along, making do with the same trickle of volunteers: "We've really seen nothing significant in terms of funding or growth." Has the White House followed up? "They called once when the President was going to be in town, and they wanted us to come out to the airport to meet him," Johnson recalls.
Other recipients report similar disappointments. "Our two greatest needs are money and volunteers," says Jacqueline Williams of Washington's Higher Achievement Program (39, Jan. 11, 1990), "and we've received neither as a result (of our designation)."
Tony Hobson of Self Enhancement Inc. (69, Feb. 16, 1990), in Portland, Ore., has seen "no great outpouring of support" as a result of his group's award: "The President visited with us for about 20 minutes when he was coming through here, campaigning for the Republican candidate for governor." Steve Baca of South San Jose Neighborhood Assn. (67, Feb. 14, 1990) in Albuquerque, N.M., sounds cynical himself. "Nothing has trickled down yet," he says.
Others say the designation hasn't hurt their efforts. "There was one funding source I'd been trying to talk to for four years," says Art Hogling of Jefferson County Community Center (35, Jan. 6, 1990) in Lakewood, Colo. "When the news that we'd been given the award appeared in the papers, they called me. It helps you get your foot in the door."
Such less-than-ecstatic responses don't surprise the project's critics, who see the "points of light" initiative as a poor substitute for New Deal-style federal programs. Rep. Patricia Schroeder, a liberal Democrat from Colorodo, is scornful: "I don't know why (Petersmeyer and his staff of 14) don't practice what they preach, take the money they are paid, and give it out to worthy volunteer organizations in grants. You'd get more bang for the buck that way."
Petersmeyer is used to critics who say his program can't work because there isn't much money behind it. His staff, in fact, refuses to discuss its budget--neatly tucked away under that of the White House Office of Public Events and Initiatives. "People always look at this office in terms of budget and staff--in terms of how Washington works," says Petersmeyer. But his program isn't about Washington, he insists; it's about the Bronx, Dubuque and Polk, Neb.
"There's this third-grade class in (Polk) taught by this wonderful lady, a Mrs. (Dian) Wurst, and every day all 19 of those children make a local call from a phone at the school to a senior housebound person," Petersmeyer says of Point of Light 48, named Jan. 23, 1990. "Can you imagine how that lifts the sense of isolation felt by these older people? Can you imagine the difference that would make if several million third-graders did that all over the country?"