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Clinton Calls on Volunteers To Help Children in Danger

By Blaine Harden
The Washington Post

The problems facing America's vulnerable children are well beyond the capacity of government to address or even understand, President Clinton said here Monday as he called on private individuals to help save these children "one by one."

Standing in front of Independence Hall, Clinton delivered a speech on volunteerism that attempted to define the limits of government in America regarding children who "are being left behind in lives of too much danger."

"Even if we do everything we should, you and I know that a lot of the problems facing our children are problems of the human heart," said Clinton, delivering the keynote address for the Presidents' Summit for America's Future.

One-on-one mentoring of vulnerable children by successful adults was the principal solution advanced by Clinton and by the formidable cast of three former presidents, 30 governors and more than 100 mayors attending the three-day summit here. Organizers said there are 15 million children in need of mentors and other assistance.

"In terms of numbers, the task may seem staggering. But if we look at the simple needs that these children have, then the task is manageable," said Colin L. Powell, the summit's general chairman. "We know what they need. They need an adult caring person."

To put more mentors, teachers and other full-time volunteers to work, Clinton Monday proposed a de facto melding of AmeriCorps, the domestic Peace Corps created in 1993, with programs already run by religious and charitable institutions.

The president said he will propose legislation creating 50,000 new AmeriCorps scholarships for volunteers working for church and charitable groups, which would be asked to pay the volunteers' living expenses.

The AmeriCorps program currently awards a college scholarship worth $4,725 for every year of service. It also picks up living costs of about $7,000. By challenging churches and charities to shoulder the living costs, the president said "we can double the number of full-time volunteers." There are now about 25,000 serving in AmeriCorps.

Several of the approximately 3,000 delegates said Monday they would attempt to raise the money to meet Clinton's challenge.

"I'm inspired. I am going back to try to get at least every church and synagogue to come up with enough money for at least two of these young people," said Rev. W.J. Jones, bishop of Holy Cross Church in Trenton, N.J. He said that many churches and synagogues already have living quarters available for potential volunteers.

While the summit here had five goals, from guaranteeing vulnerable children a safe place to play during non-school hours to teaching them marketable skills, the one that received by far the most attention, and promised the best results, was mentoring.

Researchers have found that mentoring bridges one of the most intractable problems of charity work, namely that volunteers feel most comfortable and give the most long-term service when they are helping people in their own social strata. Social science research has confirmed the subjective impressions of many volunteers that long-term mentoring does help children improve their lives.

The major obstacle to an expansion of mentoring programs is neither money nor goodwill, said Alan D. Schwartz, who heads the corporate leadership council for the One-on-One mentoring group and is also chief of investment banking at Bear Stearns in New York.

"The problem is capturing goodwill," said Schwartz. "This summit will turn out to be merely a feel-good exercise if we make it complicated and put the onus on volunteers to translate good feelings into action."

After the president, former presidents and most of the other dignitaries left Philadelphia Monday afternoon, delegates continued to share methods by which companies can organize mentors.

Hundreds of large American corporations have made substantial commitments to allow their employees to work as mentors on company time. Schwartz said careful planning is crucial for these commitments to blossom into long-term mentoring relationships between employees and children.

"As companies we have to make it very easy for employees to fit mentoring into their lives. We have take away all their excuses. Then we find that they love it, and they stick with it," Schwartz said.