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Viewpoint: Everybody's Children

Giving helps young people grow

By General Colin Powell, U.S.A (Ret.)


(TIME, December 15) -- One of the most frightening scenes in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol occurs when the Ghost of Christmas Present reveals to the yet unredeemed Ebenezer Scrooge two ragged and wolfish children -- a boy and a girl, cowering in the folds of his robe. Even flint-hearted Scrooge is intimidated by the sight of them: "Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing."

"Spirit," he asks, "are they yours?"

"They are Man's," the ghost replies. "And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom unless the writing be erased."

Children can be angels or devils, depending on the kind of nurturing they receive from others. They can grow into responsible and contributing members of society, or they can become its dependents, predators and outcasts. And because they are "Man's" children, they are everybody's children. The whole society has a stake in their destiny and a duty to help them grow up strong and confident.

As chairman of America's Promise -- The Alliance for Youth, I see angels enthroned and devils lurking every day that I deal with this country's young people. I never cease to be amazed at how little it takes to turn one into the other. In a land as richly blessed as ours, it is indeed tragic to reflect that for want of a little guidance and encouragement, a child may drop out of school, turn to drugs or crime, or create new life before he or she is mature enough to assume the responsibilities of parenthood. Yet as many as 15 million American youngsters are at risk of falling prey to these or other social scourges of our time.

America's Promise was created to give these kids a better chance at life. By the end of the year 2000, we aim to provide at least 2 million of them with five basic resources we believe they need to make it in today's America. These are: an ongoing relationship with a caring adult; safe places and structured activities from which to learn and grow during nonschool hours; a healthy start and a healthy future; a marketable skill through effective education; and an opportunity to give back through community service.

The logic of the first four resources is immediately obvious; the logic of the fifth is less so. If youngsters lack basic needs, does it make sense to ask them to give?

Paradoxically, the answer is yes. Young people -- like adults -- usually find that when they make a real effort on behalf of others, they get back more than they contribute. Many youngsters report that volunteering in their communities has helped them understand people who are different from themselves, has opened up new career possibilities to them and has enlarged their horizons. According to one poll, more than half of teenage respondents said that their grades improved as a result of volunteering. In Maryland, which has a "service-learning" requirement that students must fulfill to graduate from high school, one initially reluctant volunteer later wrote a first-person account for the Washington Post, in which she confessed that her experience in community service was generally positive and actually added value to her resume.

Even youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds find that they are enriched by giving of themselves. The Corporation for National Service (AmeriCorps) has some very uplifting stories to tell of young people whose lives have been transformed by serving others. A 20-year-old victim of a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles went on to counsel other youths on how to settle conflicts peacefully. Another AmeriCorps volunteer, a former gang member and drug dealer in Milwaukee, Wis., later founded an organization that helps teenagers break away from gangs.

Recently, I attended a rally for America's Promise in San Antonio, Texas. One of the speakers was a young man who had dropped out of high school at age 15. But his experience as a volunteer inspired him to earn his graduate-equivalency diploma, which set him on the road to college. "Because of community service," he told a hushed crowd of several thousand people, "my life has changed like night and day, and in the process I have made a difference in other people's lives."

Time and again I have been heartened by the willingness of so many young people to embrace an ethic of citizenship that includes service to community and nation. In response to the call issued by America's Promise, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America have pledged millions of additional hours in service projects, as have the youth affiliates of the Kiwanis and Rotary clubs. Not long ago, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America presented me with a "promise book" of commitments made by Boys & Girls Clubs all across the nation. That book is two inches thick!

Giving to our youth, and helping them learn the joys of giving back, could literally transform America, if we were all willing to involve ourselves in this effort. At this time of year, more than any other, it behooves us to ask ourselves honestly if we are doing enough for "Man's" children. If not, Ignorance and Want will dog our steps and dampen our holiday cheer until we do.

The author is chairman of America's Promise--The Alliance for Youth. Those interested in volunteering should call 888-55-youth.

In TIME This Week:

Cover Date Dec. 15, 1997

Can Al Bare His Soul?
Why The Reno-Freeh Spat Runs Deep
The Canal Cronies
The Postpartum Prosecutor
Why Johnny Can't Surf
Viewpoint: Everybody's Children
The Notebook: Gephardt - Open Mouth, Insert Foot

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