I am at a large picnic in Central Park, and passersby talk to a few of our group who point at me. Several approach to say, "You must feel so wonderful because of your job."
I head an organization providing volunteers to help youngsters who are poor and often in trouble. As I walk around the picnic, I greet young girls skipping rope, teenagers playing softball, mothers and relatives lying on blankets, and my volunteer men and women.
We number about 200, and the passersby know that we are an exception in a racially tense city. The youths and volunteers are yellow, brown, black, and white.
Our picnic on this sunny day attracts attention from walkers, rollerbladers, and ballplayers from other fields. Those who come over to me often say, "You and your organization are exactly what our city needs."
"Thank you," I answer. But I feel the need to add, "Except my agency has 1,000 families waiting for help. And there are several hundred thousand kids in poverty in the city who need our support."
"At least you're helping some kids," they respond. "You must feel so gratified knowing you can help a few, even one. I'm making sure I send your agency a contribution."
Their words form one of the most common compliments that I, a do-good leader, receive. And it is a compliment that has to change if my work is to succeed.
Aaron says hello. He's a teenager who's been arrested twice for robbery and has been hanging out with young kids who sell drugs. Since he's gotten a volunteer, he's stayed out of trouble.
I see Aaron's forming mustache and his tough-guy, squinted eyes. But then his smile, and our long handshake. Aaron introduces me to his mother, a small woman. Aaron says she doesn't speak English, and when I tell them I speak Spanish, they both smile.
When Aaron leaves to play softball, the mother tells me that her son is definitely doing better. But she worries that at any time in their neighborhood he could go wrong. She lives with the constant fear of some problem - in a neighborhood of problems - overtaking Aaron.
A researcher recently surveyed the poor mothers and guardians in our program. One finding was that 89 percent believed it was possible to recruit volunteers for most of the 350,000 youngsters living in poverty in single-adult homes. But a volunteer effort of that size has never been achieved in this nation.
I watch the parents, relatives, and guardians in their ill-fitting, worn clothes, helping with the picnic's food. They usually look at me until I come over to receive their handshake or embrace.
If they, with their constant worries, can believe in a great volunteer army forming, shouldn't I be able to convince the passersby to also believe? Social breakthroughs are rare, and since most of us want to feel part of making a difference, contributors feel satisfied as long as at least a few of the troubled are being helped.
I stand alone and imagine our picnic of 200 growing and filling Central Park. Faces of all colors, as varied as the flowers around us, are running around, hugging and smiling.
That image in this racially tense city, where one- half of all youths attend schools that have 90 percent minority students, sounds foolish and naive. But that is how a do-gooder thinks in order to keep going - while the majority thinks in terms of a few people being helped, in order to feel comfortable continuing to contribute.
Do-gooders like myself need to get through to the passersby that we're not a holding action against the rising flood. One day the public's thinking will shift, and people will stop thanking me for helping "a few, even one," and start asking "why not so many more?" Then the numbers of volunteers and contributors who are really needed may appear.
*Allan Luks is executive director of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of New York City.