In order to be executive director of the White House Conference on Children and Youth, Marie Oser has had to separate herself from two teen-age daughters of her own.
"It was the hardest decision I ever made," she says of the move that leaves her living in Washington with her 12-year-old daughter while running up a phone bill to her 15-year-old, her 17-year-old, and her husband, George. A professor, Mr. Oser is minding the store back in Houston until the conference is finally staged (Dec. 13-18, 1981).
Motives are always complex. But only one thing could persuade Mrs. Oser to tolerate this two-household arrangement -- her abiding concern for other people's children as well as her own.
As a 21-year-old schoolteacher over 20 years ago, she was confronted by two direct instances of child abuse. A girl in her classroom had been thrown out of her house, forced to stay in the snow for hours. A small boy couldn't stop cheating in school, until the teacher finally had to give him a failing grade. The next day, she was horrified to find out that the boy had been beaten so badly by his father that he could not sit down.
"Always," says Mrs. Oser, "the kids were the victims."
In effect, Mrs. Oser has spent her professional career preparing for this conference.
She was a commissioner of the United States Committee for the Intenational Year of the Child. She has been an educator in both Michigan and Texas, and a Head Start program director in several Texas counties. She was active in the civil-rights movement.
Texas Child Care '76, the direct service organization she founded in 1973, was her idea of the best way to celebrate the US Bicentennial year. This group set about improving the state's entire child care system. Forums were held for parents to help them find better ways to care for their children and to provide information on child caring.
A lunchtime seminar program for working parents was another innovation. Mrs. Oser encouraged the business community to sponsor the meetings and pointed out that employees who were not worried about their children would be more productive.
The White House Conference on Children and Youth is one of the oldest government conferences, first called in 1909 by President Theodore Roosevelt and held every 10 years since. In 1970, 4,000 delegates and 10,000 observers attended.
"In my most grandiose moments," she says, "I dream of this conference's awakening America to the importance of the investment we make in our children -- and that it is,m in fact, an investment. What we do for children is not only loving and caring, but immensely practical. Just look at the gross statistics and recognize waste -- waste of human life.
"I would hope that those of us upset about expenditures on social programs will soon realize a simple fact. We are called upon to make these expenditures we now face. America needs to provide a nurturing environment for allm children -- underline, underline, underline -- allm children.
"If nothing else comes out of the Eighth White House Conference for Children and Youth," Mrs. Oser declares, "I hope that it will bring the recognition on the part of all of us that we need to know how to be parents, and to respect children and youth, and that there are many ways we can learn this most fundamental ability."
Mrs. Oser's new home exudes energy and organization Coming home after a 12 -hour day, she wades through cardboard cartons from her Houston attic. The children's bedroom is the first room to look like a room. Photographs of her family and pictures of children are arranged next. People come and go, and everyone in the house is gently involved in the action -- holding pictures up, moving furniture, giving opinions even about the dog.
The it's back to the long-distance phone to Houston. "George and I have had some of the most interesting conversations we've ever had since I've come to Washington," Marie Oser says. "On the phone, we've talked a lot about issues and ideas, rather than the nitty gritty of everyday life."