More Communities March To Beat of Volunteer Summit

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

People keep marching into Lisa Failla's New York office carrying their old violins, piccolos, and tubas.

Ms. Failla conducts a campaign by VH1, the cable music channel, to bring 1 million additional musical instruments to elementary schools in the next five years. Since the drive started this spring, it has struck a chord, and the donations keep rolling in.

VH1's effort is part of a growing response to the President's Summit for America's Future held last April in Philadelphia. At the gathering, President Clinton, retired Gen. Colin Powell, and former presidents called on communities to help youths at risk from poverty, crime, and other social ills.

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And while progress may not have moved along as fast as many would have liked, the summit's agenda is beginning to gain momentum as the school year begins. More and more corporations are offering programs to support America's youths, and communities nationwide are planning local versions of the summit to bring its goals to the grass-roots level.

"We are now slowly beginning to reap what came out of Philadelphia," says Jeff Wender, spokesman for America's Promise, a nonprofit group chaired by General Powell.

Texas is holding a statewide summit at the end of this month, and Kentucky, Massachusetts, Utah, and West Virginia have summits scheduled in October. By the end of next year, 140 communities plan to host similar events.

Some of these local conferences have already produced results. After Virginia's meeting this summer, community groups in Charlottesville, decided to collect 6,000 books so every kindergartner and first-grader in the city could have their own book.

Many corporations have also started programs on their own. The Fleet Financial Group and United Way of Massachusetts Bay opened a tutoring center two months ago in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood. Fleet has committed $6 million toward opening 24 more centers by 2000 as well.

Other examples include:

* NationsBank opened 25 after-school centers where children can get one-on-one tutoring and learn computer skills.

* Walt Disney Co. has enlisted 139 of its retail stores to provide mentors to Boys and Girls Clubs.

* Microsoft Corp. has committed $200 million toward putting computers in libraries around the country while its rival, Oracle Corp., has pledged $100 million toward putting computers in classrooms.

But getting businesses involved on the local level isn't always easy. Many large companies made commitments during the summit, but managers in branch offices don't necessarily know what they should or can do, says Ruth Parsons, director of the United Way Volunteer Center in Charlottesville.

"It's hard to keep people focused on it," she says. "There's been a lot of media coverage prior to and during the summit, but only bits and pieces afterwards."

Young people have provided some of the most enthusiastic responses to the summit. This excitement reached a crescendo last weekend in Waco, Texas, where 1,000 students gathered for their own conference. Each delegate pledged to complete 100 hours of community service within the next year.

"We want youths to be the role models for the adults," says 17-year-old Amy Achor, director of the youth summit.

Yet some adults haven't needed any prodding to volunteer. Walter Williams helps out at the Westside Baptist Ministers Conference, which offers tutoring, field trips, and computer training to children in some of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods. He says mentors at his church helped him when he was young, so now it's his turn. "Maybe I can help save some kids," he says.

But the Westside mentoring program needs more volunteers like Mr. Williams. The program has only 10 regular mentors to work with 56 youths, and that's not enough to provide the one-on-one attention the children need, says administrator Glenda Drungole. So far, all the summit's talk has not turned into action here.

That may change, though. Many say that once community groups get more organized, the summit will bring relief. "A lot of businesses made pretty significant commitments," says Jon Schmidt, director of the After School Action Programs in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood. "It will be up to the neighborhood organizations to tap into it."

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