Checking Some Seeds Sown Years Ago by the War on Poverty

THIRTY years ago I directed an experiment in eradicating poverty. The Office of Economic Opportunity, one of President Johnson's Great Society programs, funded a project run by Berea College in partnership with the Kentucky River Foothills Development Council, a local antipoverty agency set up to administer OEO funds.

Project Torchlight was to serve 200 students from four counties - 100 males and 100 females, thoroughly integrated racially.

After 34 years with Berea College, I am currently on sabbatical leave for the academic year. Part of my sabbatical work is to find out what happened to those 200 Torchlight students from the spring of 1966 and a similar group of 125 who participated in 1967. Was the War on Poverty successful as regards these youths from low-income families? Or is Newt Gingrich right?

The program kept the students on the Berea campus for eight weeks. They were counseled by college students who shared their backgrounds and were thought to be excellent role models. They were instructed by teachers who believed in intensive hands-on experience.

Broadening experiences

There was extensive work in music, drama, and the visual arts, involving all students and staff. On field trips they visited places of historical and cultural interest in Kentucky, including the state capitol, where they met with the governor.

While at Berea, the students left behind negative community stereotypes that had troubled their families and had placed a lid on their aspirations. They also left behind a principal of one of their county schools who ordered me out of his office and told me I was ''dealing in trash.'' They left behind a rabid newspaper editor who editorialized against the program as a waste of government money and characterized the project as ''Torchblight.'' They left behind a high school guidance counselor who said the most two identical twins from her school could hope for was life in Kentucky's penal system.

I have not finished interviewing all the former students and can not yet provide a statistical accounting of the whereabouts and circumstances of each. But I have seen and heard enough to know that a discussion of the lives of those I have interviewed might add something of value to the current debate on how we as a nation might best spend scarce resources.

First, some bad news: Many of these former students were swept up in the Vietnam War. Four of the original 100 males were killed in Vietnam. Two of those killed were in the Marines and two in the Army. Another came home with only one leg. Still another was one of four survivors of his company in the battle for Hamburger Hill. His roommate in Project Torchlight was killed in another battle.

Many others served in Vietnam, and at least one was decorated for valor. Several made a career of the military and are retired. The husbands of many of the females in the program also served in Vietnam.

Other former students have been killed in car accidents. One was murdered; one committed suicide shortly after his return from the Army.

Now the good news. The evidence I have uncovered so far indicates that the program worked. Most of those designated 30 years ago by school officials and others as sure losers have emerged as winners. Most of them thank a small antipoverty program for helping point them in the right direction to make something of themselves.

Many have said that the program helped them learn to believe in themselves. As one said: ''When I left the program, I said to myself: 'I am somebody.' And I haven't thought any other way since.'' Most repay the government in taxes for the small amount spent on them during the summer of 1966 or '67. Thus far I have discovered only two on AFDC and, if my leads prove correct, I don't expect to find more than one or two others.

One young woman became a doctor, went back for added training, and is now a specialist in neo-natal care. Another became a chiropractor. Several are medical technicians and assistants, and several are nurses or nurse's aides.

Some went directly to college and now teach and administer in various capacities, ranging from pre-school instructor to college professor. (The professor is a Brown University PhD). Others have worked one or more jobs while raising their families and have postponed completing their educations. Two graduated from Eastern Kentucky University in 1995.

One former Torchlight participant, a Navy veteran, is a minister. One directs a family shelter in a large city. Still another runs a county animal shelter. Many became entrepreneurs and are managing their own businesses, and at least one is engaged in international business.

Some have leadership roles in industry, ranging from plant engineer to payroll officer. There are carpenters, building contractors, farmers, plumbers, electricians, restaurant cooks, dining room supervisors, tree technicians, truck drivers, garage operators, building supervisors, and a stockbroker.

In short, these former students in Project Torchlight are doing what most Americans do. They work hard, pay taxes, try to keep their families healthy, try to get their children educated, and try hard to make the country a better place for all.

Living family values

But in some crucial respects they are different. They haven't forgotten what it was like not to own a piece of the American dream. They haven't forgotten the discrimination encountered by those with a different color of skin, inadequate income, or the wrong social pedigree.

They don't talk ''family values,'' as is now the fashion. Instead they practice those values. Many have been married to the same spouses for more than 25 years. Even those who are divorced keep their families uppermost in mind. They don't talk about the value of community. They make their communities positive places to bring up children and practice respect for elders. Many have long commutes over rough mountain roads to their jobs. But they return home to support churches, community groups, and members of their extended family who might be unable to properly care for themselves.

Contrary to much of the conservative rhetoric today, programs like this one promoted, rather than jeopardized, traditional American values.

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