Chicago inner-city students make helping others an adventure
Chicago — Mattie Stewart, who lives in the senior-citizen section of Rockwell Gardens, a Chicago public-housing project, admits her windows haven't been washed for a long, long time. And she is delighted - ''I sure do appreciate this very, very much'' - that they are now getting a scrubdown by three students from the Youth Service Adventure Club (YSAC) of nearby Crane High School.
Crane is a predominantly black, inner-city school on this city's West Side, better known to most Chicagoans for its students' athletic prowess, high dropout rate, and discipline problems than for any tradition of voluntarism.
Mrs. Stewart, who grew up in Alabama as the youngest of 10 children, says she recalls the days when people used to do anything for their neighbors. She helps out in Crane's library and attendance office one day a week as a volunteer. The window chores are one way the students, under the guiding hand of club founder and Crane history teacher Sidney Zwick, can repay the favor and help other project residents in need of window cleaning or apartment repairs.
''It's a nice reciprocal arrangement,'' says Mr. Zwick, who recently took this youth-senior link a step further by having students in his history class tape interviews with older local residents about their early days. ''It all helps students break down any stereotypes they have of the elderly as crochety or grouchy. They're more appreciative and inclined to look on them now as older members of the family.''
But helping seniors is only a part of YSAC's mission. The club, launched in the mid-1960s, grew out of a civics class Zwick was teaching. He says he realized there was no better way to show what it means to be a responsible citizen than to give students an opportunity to do something constructive for their own neighborhoods. Though most of the after-school projects involve cleanups, the students have also helped local public-TV fund-raising efforts and have distributed Christmas gifts to the poor from local charities.
''All kids have untapped idealism, and a lot of times all it takes is someone with a little interest in them and some direction to bring it out,'' he says. ''Sometimes we tend to coddle our kids and not expect enough of them.''
As the carrot in the arrangement, Zwick offers students extra credit in social-studies class and junkets such as a recent trip to a jazz concert at nearby Northwestern University. But he recalls that the primary aim of the club - to show students the satisfaction of helping others - was realized on the very first project. The students had been promised a bike trip in exchange for repainting the walls of a delapidated local church. But once the job was done, the students asked when the next work project was scheduled.
Several of the service projects over the last 17 years have involved students from white or integrated suburban high schools as well. At one point early on, before the riots following the death of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 put a damper on such exchanges, students from Evanston High School joined service-club members once a week to scrub windows in public-housing projects near Crane.
On and off through the years, students from suburban schools and Crane have also helped clean up a Salvation Army camp in southern Wisconsin for summer use.
But much of the Youth Service Adventure Club's work in recent months has focused on Crane High School itself. To a visitor, the gray-walled structure with brown, painted-over windows and doors and blue graffiti scrawled all over the front looks more like an abandoned warehouse than a school. But the handsome , well-maintained athletic field next door and the bright, lemon-yellow lockers and hallways in some areas stand as reminders of the $11 million the city invested in rehabilitation and shop equipment here in the mid-1970s. That investment is a key factor in YSAC's focus on Crane.
''The best way to get kids to take care of their school is to get them involved,'' says Zwick. ''If you pay someone to clean it up, it's going to get messed up again.''
But Zwick has learned the hard way that having a good idea and trying to do something about it are two different things. There was early criticism, for instance, from administrators who thought he was exposing the students to unnecessary risk with off-campus chores.
Though there was no such objection to having students clean graffiti off bathroom walls, those YSAC members who rose to the challenge wish the results were a little more appreciated. ''Some people said it looked nice after we'd cleaned the graffiti off, but the very next day it was all marked up again,'' says one member, Valentina Hogan.
A constant challenge for Zwick, former executive director of the Chicago Council of American Youth Hostels, is to raise the needed funds to sponsor YSAC reward activities. A hostel trip to Washington, D.C., slated for this spring as a reward to students who had worked the hardest on YSAC projects and had earned half the cost themselves had to be canceled for lack of full funds.
Still, the Crane history teacher seems largely undaunted by such setbacks. He anticipates more interesting work projects with other schools and looks toward the time when Crane will become more of a catalyst in stimulating worthwhile community-education activities.