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Volunteer Summit: Two Views On Whether It Will Matter

As meeting ends, goal remains to aid 2 million children.

As the media spotlight shifts from the freshly painted buildings at the volunteer summit here, left in the shadows are lingering questions about the event's legacy.

Will this week's unprecedented bipartisan celebration of volunteerism ultimately be a historic launching point of a movement to revitalize America's inner cities?

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Or was this just another well-intentioned media extravaganza that will fade in time, leaving in its wake a deeper cynicism?

The answers are as different as the two Americas that are now attempting to reach across a wide economic divide to find some common ground.

"Interest in crossing the divide, breaching the divide that separates us, has always been there, but now it's crescendoing," says Bob Goodwin of the Points of Light Foundation.

For many political, corporate, and nonprofit leaders, the summit signals a fresh start: the marshaling of untapped resources, the development of a long-term strategy to help poor children, and the appointment of one of the nation's most esteemed military men, retired Gen. Colin Powell, to lead the charge.

General Powell's objective is to mobilize volunteers and corporate largess to come to the aid of 2 million children by 2000.

But there is skepticism, born of hard lessons, among local residents who watched volunteers paint and rake on Germantown Avenue here on Sunday.

They've heard the nation's political luminaries trumpet the merits of volunteerism before. Jimmy Carter became the volunteer president, and President Reagan built his political career on the idea of less government and more private involvement. President Bush had his "thousand points of light;" President Clinton has Americorps.

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To Marc Thompson, a young, unemployed north Philadelphia resident who watched Sunday's volunteers from behind a chain-link fence, the frenzied cleanup is nothing more than short-term, misplaced idealism. "Things aren't really going to change, with all the violence, drugs, deteriorating buildings here," he says.

Each day, Monday through Friday, Mr. Thompson puts on his best clothes and beats the pavement looking for a custodial job, to no avail. If lives are to improve here, he says, there must be more jobs and better housing. His views echo the concerns of many others, who see volunteerism as a poor substitute for government antipoverty programs. If it is going to work, Thompson adds, there has to be a sustained commitment to volunteering.

On that score, at least, there is universal agreement. "The essential thing is for there to be follow-up, and that depends on grass-roots leadership everywhere," says Baruch Levy of Israel's Center for Volunteerism, an international guest at the summit.

That will be the challenge for Powell and his new volunteer organization, the Alliance for Youth. Studies show that short-term volunteering, such as spending a weekend to build a house, is on the rise. But long-term commitment, the kind that make a real difference in children's lives, is on the wane.

Still, those same studies show that many Americans harbor a growing desire to help make that long-term difference.

"If you look at the statistics, especially regarding the state of our poor children, the only recourse now is to get involved and lend a hand," says Mr. Bush, whose administration inspired the Points of Light Foundation that coordinated the summit.

THE National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse (NCPCA) has tracked public views about volunteering, particularly around child-abuse issues. Ten years ago, citizens overwhelming agreed that it was a major public-health problem - and that government ought to fix it.

"Now when we ask that question, the response is, 'I want to get involved, what can I do?' " says Anne Cohn Donnelly, NCPCA executive director. The "next challenge" is informing people what they can do to help, she says.

The Ronald McDonald House Charities is conducting a broad study designed to understand America's volunteering patterns and, ultimately, learn how to improve them.

"When we have a flood, like we do in North Dakota, we all ... try to get those people aid," says Ken Barun, chief executive officer of the organization, which has already committed $100 million to help at-risk children. "But why aren't we paying attention to teenage pregnancy, inner-city gang warfare, substance abuse, or things that are really decaying the morality of our country?"

"It's going to take individuals getting involved directly," says Phil Carroll, chief executive officer of Shell Oil. "And I think people are beginning to recognize that and are willing to give more of their own time and talent to try to solve some of these problems."

But proving that to people who live and work in distressed communities may take time.

"One of the problems ... is that even a lot of our volunteer programs lost their funding," says Ayana Dykes, a Philadelphia high school senior who belongs to Peer Group Connection, a group created to serve the community.

Although not overly optimistic, Ayana is holding out hope the summit could change that, too.

Summit Luminaries Issue a 'Call to Action'

At the Presidents' Summit on America's Future in Philadelphia yesterday, a star-studded line-up of participants called on Americans to revive their spirit of volunteerism. In particular, the speakers shared their thoughts on the need for a long-term effort to help 2 million needy children.

President Clinton

'You and I know that a lot of the problems facing our children are problems of the human heart, problems that can only be resolved when there is a one-on-one connection ... so that every child in this country is entitled to live out their God-given destiny. You know it's true.'

Former President Carter

'This summit can be the beginning of a renewed commitment to our children, but the real revolution will take place only if we carry this new spirit of Philadelphia back to our own neighborhoods and turn it into action.'

Talk-show host Oprah Winfrey

'[W]e have been failing the children.... Over 3 million incidents of child abuse - and that's just the reported cases. Fifteen gunshots that kill a child every day, 1,340 births by teenage mothers.... Here's one that's hard to get out of your head: Tomorrow morning, in the land of the free..., 27 children, that's a whole classroom, will die of poverty-related causes. We have not made our children the priority. But we can change that.'

Retired Gen. Colin Powell

'We gather here to pledge that those of us who are more fortunate will not forsake those who are less fortunate. We're a compassionate nation, we're a caring nation. We will reach down, we will reach back, we will reach across, to help our brothers and sisters in need. Above all, we pledge to reach out to the most vulnerable members of the American family, our children.'

The Rev. Jesse Jackson

'Volunteers are the catalyst that will make government, corporations, communities, schools, and religious organizations work. The Scripture reads, "Don't inform things as they are but transform them" - change the status quo. We will transform it with the renewal of our minds.'

Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell

'Is this summit really illusory because it doesn't cure all of Americas problems? Well of course it doesn't cure all of America's problems. No effort like this could.... But is changing the lives of at least 2 million people a laudable goal? You bet it is!'

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