New York program turns out new breed of `flower children'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

They don't look like kids who have been through a world of trouble, as they put the finishing touches on some very nice flower arrangements. The teen-age boys in the classroom are, in most instances, what has come to be known as throwaway children. They are from shattered homes, they are not in school, many have had skirmishes with the law. But they are in a program that might help salvage their lives.

The Rev. James R. Harvey began working with such troubled youths 10 years ago after a stint as a chaplain in the city prison on Rikers Island. He was convinced that the criminal-justice system was failing children. (Helping neglected children, Page 5.)

But the Roman Catholic priest was not prepared for what has happened since he started Flowers With Care, an apprenticeship program that matches kids with florists in the city.

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The increase in the number of youths coming to his door has been astronomical. And while young people in the program 10 years ago often had more severe criminal problems, their needs today are 10 times greater, Fr. Harvey says.

``These kids are coming in undersocialized, raw off the streets,'' he says. ``They lack job skills, education, proper health - a large number come in malnourished.''

The boys, who range from one nattily dressed in a red Coca-Cola sweat shirt and suspenders to one wearing black jeans, an earring, and a modified Mohican haircut, had been skeptical about flower arranging. Now they are clearly proud of their work; today was the first day they had tried their hand at putting together lilies, carnations, roses, and greenery.

``This one goes to my girl,'' says one 16-year-old, holding up a single peach rose. ``These lilies go to my mother.''

Fr. Harvey sighs over the view society seems to have toward children today.

``We view children like a plastic bottle of cola - it's disposable. You get enjoyment out of it, but when there's no more enjoyment, you throw it out.''

He sees this attitude - a reluctance to accept the challenge of commitment - throughout society. And he points out that it is a hard time for youths in New York City. More than 700,000 children live in poverty, according to some reports. The number of homeless children is increasing. Despite vigorous efforts to stem the school dropout rate, it remains over 60 percent in some neighborhoods.

Rootless teen-agers have been involved in shootings, rapes, and robberies. Shop owners on upper Madison Avenue have signs on their doors saying men can come in only by appointment, which is a ``polite'' way to keep out young blacks that they fear will rob them.

Flowers With Care, based in Astoria, a section of Queens, is one of many small, nonprofit programs aimed at helping the youth of this city. The kids are not hard-core criminals, but nearly 80 percent have been referred through the court system. Others come via family, friends, or neighborhood groups. Some simply show up on the doorstep.

They are offered immediate emergency assistance, counseling, and educational and medical tests. Then the young men and women receive job training, and eventually work is found in a shop. Recently Flowers With Care branched out to include other businesses besides florists.

In 10 years, some 2,000 youths have gone through the program with a 90 percent sucess rate, according to Fr. Harvey, including seven graduates who now own their own flower shops. Recently, though, he sees the success rate slipping to 80 percent, in part because needs are so desperate. These kids have fallen through the cracks for so long.

``A lot of these youths are not ready for help,'' says Fr. Harvey, seeing the possibility in youngsters whom others might scratch off as incorrigible. ``They want food or clothes or a place to stay. We try to engage them in other things, and sometimes they are not ready. But we try with any [sign of] motivation.''

The average age at Flowers With Care is 16, the average reading level is second grade, and 30 percent are totally illiterate. Nearly 100 youths are going through the program at a time, and about 550 finish in a year. Five years ago youths spent only two weeks in the program. Today they need three months - which includes education, complete medical care, and counseling.

He says he's been accused of being ``irrationally'' in love with the kids in his program. He laughs, but turns serious.

Fr. Harvey tells of a 16-year-old girl who was a prostitute. She came to Flowers With Care during Christmastime last year, hungry, exhausted, and dirty. After she was fed and clothed, the girl disappeared. He found her later sleeping under a pew in the chapel (the program is in a former parochial school).

``I knelt down next to her, and I've never got a sense so strongly - I was kneeling at the manger, and the child was not in fact a sweet infant, but a black child hooker.... These kids are sacred.''

Once a youth has taken a job, there are sometimes problems - but often with reasons. Kids show up late or not at all. At first it was chalked up to ``Oh, he's an irresponsible street kid.''

But when Fr. Harvey talked to the youths, he realized that these kids had rarely before felt wanted or needed. They had little concept that if they didn't act responsibly, it would create hardship for others.

There were also complaints that the kids were lazy. It occurred to him that they should have medical exams. Many had problems related to poor nutrition.

Fr. Harvey was in a shop one time when one of the teen-agers stood by and let the phone ring. When he finally demanded to know why he didn't answer it, the boy said, ``I know if I answer it I will have to take down a message or an order. I don't know how to read or write.''

``Our job is to bring all these needs together and help them,'' Fr. Harvey says. He says the change in the youths' lives is evident once they start working.

``I am constantly amazed at the expression of their faces,'' he says. ``They have self-respect - a changed person who feels warmth, trust, and care.''

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