The ripple effect of a generous spirit

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Anyone who cherishes memories of a childhood library - the smell of paper and glue, the location of favorite books on shelves, the color and pattern of linoleum tile on the floor - will surely feel a warm spot in the heart for Charles Joelson, library champion extraordinaire.

Thirty years ago, it was Representative Joelson, a Democratic Congressman from New Jersey, who led a floor fight supporting a measure that saved tens of thousands of public school libraries from closing. The amendment added $1 billion to President Nixon's education budget in 1969, keeping about 40,000 elementary and secondary school libraries open. A majority were in low-income and minority neighborhoods.

When Joelson died last week, most people reading his obituary had probably never heard of the "Joelson Package" spending amendment. It was one of the five-term Congressman's last acts before he left Washington to become a judge. But who can calculate how many students benefited over the years from the books and librarians he helped to save?

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Call Joelson an unsung hero, and add him to the list of those who, in various ways, make an incalculable difference in the lives of the less fortunate.

In Joelson's case, it was public money that kept the library doors open. In other instances, funds for educational and social causes come from private donors.

Remember Eugene Lang? He's the industrialist who, in 1981, delivered a commencement speech promising to provide full college scholarships to each of the 61 sixth-graders at PS121 in New York City if they finished high school. Although some educators had predicted that three-quarters of the East Harlem class would drop out, his incentive spurred 80 percent to graduate. And more than half - 36 students - enrolled in public or private colleges.

The power of one man's generous spirit on behalf of the next generation!

Mr. Lang's philanthropic vision spread. In the mid-1980s he established a foundation called I Have a Dream, which now includes more than 150 local projects around the United States. Groups "adopt" entire elementary-school classes and offer academic support and mentoring.

Private outreach also crosses international borders. For more than 20 years, Dominique Lapierre, the author of bestsellers on modern history, has used royalties from his books to help the impoverished in India. After writing a book about Indian independence, "Freedom at Midnight," he and his wife set up private-aid projects in that country. So far the couple has quietly spent $5 million on efforts ranging from literacy, education, and health programs for women to clinics in fishing villages.

Noting that 350 million Indians go to bed hungry, Mr. Lapierre told a New York Times reporter, "These people are the real heroes of the planet."

So are people like the Lapierres and Lang and Joelson. Their largely unsung deeds illustrate how a combination of determination and judiciously spent dollars can make a difference.

At a time of record prosperity, when the US continues on an unprecedented economic roll, such examples deserve closer attention. As Congress debates tax cuts and considers how to spend a budget surplus, lawmakers might do well to remember the Joelson Package and the long-term good that $1 billion did for students, not only in preserving libraries but in funding guidance counseling and vocational programs. Stronger schools might counter some of the negative effects welfare reform is having on children, some of whose families are poorer than they were three years ago.

This could also be a time for private investors, reaping the rewards of a rising Dow and a booming Silicon Valley, to look outward. How many mansions and luxury cars can they buy before boredom sets in, along with a feeling that there must be more to wealth than a collection of expensive toys? We need a new generation of Langs and Lapierres, unselfish benefactors willing to share the fruits of their success.

Like Carl Sandburg's fog, unsung heroes often "come on little cat feet" and go out just as quietly. But unlike fog, they leave a lasting mark - heartening evidence that they have a dream and are doing what they can to make it come true for others.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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