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Salvaging Our Greatest Treasure

March 02, 1997

Not long ago, Colin Powell visited a Boys and Girls Club in an impoverished Florida neighborhood. He had hoped his own story of rising from a poor childhood in the Bronx to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would inspire the kids. As he spoke, a 9-year-old boy raised his hand and asked, "General, do you think if you didn't have two parents you would have made it?" In a recent magazine article Powell wrote that the question helped him realize that, unlike the "many youngsters . . . in despair" today, he profited from the love and care of two parents in the home.

On April 27 in Philadelphia's Independence Hall, the retired military leader will convene "The President's Summit for America's Future," a three-day conference aimed at exploring how volunteer efforts can help resolve the social problems that make childhood today so different from Powell's own. Statistics tell the story: The number of children under age 6 who live in poverty has increased 50% since 1979.

Far more than mere ceremony, the summit--co-chaired by Presidents Bill Clinton, George Bush, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford--is an effort to find ways of giving young people mentors who care for them, safe places to learn and grow, marketable skills and an opportunity to give back through community service.

None of these potential solutions will work, however, unless Americans take steps to ensure that a generous and bipartisan spirit survives outside the summit, from Congress to our communities.

Summit backers can begin by listening to skeptics who rightly worry that volunteer efforts, no matter how influential, are not necessarily better than public social services, which, under federal welfare cuts, are being reduced or eliminated.

Congressional Democrats should not fight sensible legislation that Republicans will soon introduce to give working parents more flexible hours and more time with their kids. Conversely, Republicans should stop trying to slash the budget of volunteer programs like AmeriCorps.

Finally, all of us should support the summit in spirit or in deed, for summit organizers are pinning its success on the hope that 2 million Americans will agree to volunteer for service in their own communities by the year 2000.

To Take Action: Dial (800) 365-0153 or reach organizers on the Internet at www.citizenservice.org

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