His quest crosses the suburb-city divide
NEWARK, N.J. — Michael Nolan was 14 when a church program gave him his first startling glimpse of inequity.
A local priest arranged for Michael and nine other teens from a comfortable New Jersey suburb to meet occasionally with 10 teens from nearby Newark. The program's simple aim was for the students to talk to one another, to exchange views.
Michael Â- at that time a student at an exclusive prep school Â- was dumbstruck by what he heard.
"The people who surrounded me were mostly concerned about their golf scores," Mr. Nolan recalls, "while people in Newark were worried about not having enough to eat."
It was a realization that changed the shape of Nolan's life.
A few years later, as a college student, he formed a nonprofit group to offer summer school, summer day camp, and year-round after-school programs in Newark.
Today, alongside demanding work as a corporate attorney, Nolan continues to head up Kids Corporation. The organization now provides low-cost after-school academic programs at five Newark sites, and also operates a 125-acre camp in western New Jersey that serves as a recreation and learning center for children from Newark.
In addition, Kids Corporation offers supplies, field trips, enrichment activities, and specialized instruction to about 30 community- and faith-based groups that host summer school programs for 2,500 Newark children.
As a 14-year-old, however, at the moment he was first made aware of the needs in his neighboring city, Nolan was an unlikely candidate for this kind of work.
By his own account, he was an indifferent student who drifted on to college at St. Vincent, a small school run by Benedictine monks in Latrobe, Pa. It was there, he says, that he became inspired by the Benedictine ideals of community service.
At the end of his sophomore year of college, the same priest who had originally put him in touch with the Newark teens invited him to help run a small day camp for Newark schoolchildren in a local park, in addition to teaching summer school in the city. By this point, Nolan was ready to make the most of the opportunity.
The idea was to give the city kids a little bit of summer fun, in addition to some academics, and Â- perhaps most important Â- a haven in the midst of a tough urban environment during the months when there was no school.
But for Nolan, the experience served to deepen both his discomfort and his commitment. "I saw that for these kids, the chances of entering into American society as I knew it were very limited," he says.
Spurred to do more, Nolan eventually took over and expanded the summer program, soliciting private funding, recruiting fellow college students as low-budget workers, and acquiring a piece of land to be used as a day camp.
This turned into Kids Corporation, a project he dedicated himself to even as he made his way through law school, began practice as an attorney, married, and fathered three children.
"Actually, it's always been a full-time job for me," says Nolan a bit wryly. "It's just that I've always held other jobs at the same time as well."
Nolan did take one sabbatical from the work. In the mid-1980s, a point came where he hit a wall of discouragement. "I looked around and realized," he says, "that we were helping individual children but doing nothing to change the infrastructure."
If anything, both Newark itself and the city's school system had further deteriorated, he says Â- developments that the existence of Kids Corporation had done nothing to check.
Feeling somewhat defeated, Nolan basically shut down Kids Corporation and spent the next nine years focusing instead on his own family and his growing practice as a corporate attorney.
Then one day he came home from work and faced his wife, Kathleen, who had first met Nolan as another of the 10 suburban teenagers brought together with the Newark students. The experience, he says, had "perhaps moved her even more than it did me."
So it is not surprising that what she had to say to him about the demise of Kids Corporation was: "This is just so wrong."
And so in 1992 Kids Corporation II was born. But this time around, Nolan has been determined to do more than simply help individual children.
An impatient and nervously energetic man who stirs in his chair as he speaks, Nolan does not hesitate to use the connections he has forged as a $550 an hour corporate attorney Â- handling cases he refers to as "complicated business crimes" Â- to further the work of Kids Corporation.
Nolan is working to bring together public and private resources to guarantee free medical care, hot evening meals, school supplies, and clothing to children through New Jersey's 30 poorest school districts.
But Nolan sees the possibility of a more extensive network stretching throughout the state, tying in resources such as Medicare and local food banks.
"He's always on the move," says Catherine McFarland, an executive officer with the Victoria Foundation in Montclair, N.J., a group that has offered Kids Corporation financial support since its inception. "He always has another idea. He leaves you breathless. Sometimes what he envisions doesn't happen, but he always tries."
In the wake of Sept. 11, funding has become tight, Nolan says, creating some serious challenges for Kids Corporation. But that doesn't mean he's thinking of backing off.
Once conscious of the inequity in the world, he says, "I couldn't understand how it was possible that people could just see that and think that it was OK."