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Helping Kids in South Italy Look Beyond Bleak Poverty

ANTONIO SILVESTRIS knows what young people in his city of Bari are facing these days. The man who now works to keep kids off the streets spent his own youth in and out of reform school and prison.

"All the kids who come to me are a little rebellious. They don't know about civic life.... Many, amazingly enough, didn't even know that there's a mayor in the city of Bari or a city government," he says. "They'd heard about it in a superficial way, but they hadn't ever looked into the fact that there's an administration, someone who governs us, something that they're starting to learn now."

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Mr. Silvestris charges that the underlying challenge in the region is poverty, which can make life look bleak. Many young people in southern Italy skip school or drop out altogether. Some of them turn to purse-snatching, prostitution, or murder. "Bari's is a delinquency to meet needs, not one of organized crime, as in other cities," he says. "They do it out of need to survive."

The economic outlook for the city is not promising. Silvestris calculates that about 1 in 4 young people between the ages of 18 and 29 in San Paolo, a neighborhood outside Bari, have not finished mandatory schooling and that 7 in 10 are jobless. Seventy thousand people live in Bari, but it is a place tourists don't visit.

Yet the city of Bari is relatively prosperous for Italy's struggling southern region. Nationally, Italy's jobless rate stands at 11.5 percent. But the lion's share of those without work are in the south: 19.6 percent vs. 7.8 percent in the north.

The economic and educational disparity between the north and south endangers Italy's ability to compete economically in a united Europe and has even fueled calls for secession in the north.

The community center where Silvestris works, Emergenza Radio San Paolo, is in a former junior high school. The name comes from the center's ambulance service that offers residents free transport to the hospital. Silvestris and his kids chip in to pay the expenses. San Paolo has no other ambulance. Its hospital is still under construction after 30 years.

The center's headquarters are spartan. Down the hall from the game room and Silvestris's office, another room is filled with stacks of books ranging from university sociology texts - of dubious interest to San Paolo's young people - to mystery novels.

One young person who comes to the drop-in center is Daniele, who dreams of being a police officer like his uncle and his cousin. He says he came here because he wanted a life different from that of his friends. "I saw friends end up in prison or even get killed," he says.

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Even if Bari youths try to get ahead, the local bureaucracy can block their path. Patronage is rife here. One youth, Vito, tried two years straight to enter the architecture faculty of the University of Bari and failed, although he has won many first prizes as an artist and got better grades in school than some who were accepted, according to his mother, Stella Grisolia.

He was also turned down after taking competitions to join the Army and the aeronautical academy. Perhaps Vito didn't know the right people.

"Often you have the feeling that these competitions are done only for a public show," says Vito's father, Salvatore, whose job at the state electric company provides the family's only income.

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