Felicia Kornbluh was nearing the end of her reporting career. One of her last stories, designated for Rolling Stone Magazine, whisked her off to Cambodia where she glimpsed the poverty-stricken existence of refugees.
This experience, she says, transformed her life: ''I could hear my voice saying to myself then, how can I ever worry about little petty things when here are these people who have got so much more to fight against.''
Remarkably, these are the words of a 13-year-old.
It was Children's Express, an organization for young journalists, that enabled Felicia to journey halfway around the world in 1980 to learn lessons quite different from those taught in school. Today, as editor in chief of the same organization, she helps other aspiring reporters (age 7 to 13) and editors (age 14 to 19) learn similar lessons in this after-school activity.
Felicia is a perfect illustration of what Robert Clampitt, founder of Children's Express (CE), calls the fundamental operating principle of his organization - the ''transforming power of responsibility.'' Mr. Clampitt, former Wall Street lawyer and former senior staff member at the Office of Economic Opportunity, says he believes responsibility in the hands of children expands potential and fosters discipline.
Marian Edelmann, president of the Children's Defense Fund and noted children's issues expert, lauds CE.
''Young people need more opportunity to function productively in this society ,'' she says. ''Children's Express is an excellent outlet for young people to learn writing skills, to study political affairs, and to understand how our country works.''
Indeed, this is exactly what Felicia and between 100 and 200 children are learning at CE's tiny New York office. This central bureau produces three syndicated columns a week for newspapers around the country, and with minimal adult supervision. School credit is sometimes given for work done, but generally , it's an after-school activity for students in the area. Stories focus on children's issues: how to deal with an alcoholic parent, how children feel about nuclear war, how President Reagan's budget cuts might affect children. Yet readership spans all age groups.
CE's triweekly column crowns an impressive list of achievements. In 1978 the organization sponsored a national hearing in Washington, D.C., on incarcerated children. Shortly thereafter, reporters testified at a Senate committee hearing on the continuation of the Juvenile Justice Act.
Known by reputation and their telltale yellow T-shirts, CE reporters have interviewed Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, Cesar Chavez, then Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, Buckminster Fuller, and Carl Sagan, to name a few. The White House recently invited CE to interview President Reagan.
And their reputation as professional journalists? ''They ask good questions on serious subjects,'' says Cortland Anderson, director of the School of Journalism at Ohio University and former vice-president of the Washington Post. ''Based on what I know, Children's Express does a good, balanced job.''
CE reporters roved through national political conventions. Perhaps their greatest accomplishment came during the 1976 Democratic convention where they beat the rest of the press on the story of Jimmy Carter's choice of Walter F. Mondale as a running mate.
''The kids really created CE at that 1976 Democratic convention,'' says Mr. Clampitt, ''I just sat and watched it happen.'' The youthful reporters scrapped his agenda of interviews with peanut vendors and telephone installers. Instead, they honed in on Walter Cronkite, Bill Moyers, and Rodger Mudd, who were casually testing sound equipment. Since that initial takeoff, CE has flown nonstop.
Every six weeks the New York bureau trains a flurry of new reporters, and interest is bubbling in at least six cities around the United States. Portland, Ore., will start a bureau this month. Another bureau, in Salem, Mass., produces a weekly column for the Salem Evening News.
''What we're dreaming of,'' Clampitt says, ''is in five years having 100 bureaus all over the US - a kind of children's network.''
Inevitably, the question arises: Is Children's Express doing more harm than good by prematurely dousing children in a flood of world affairs? Often that's the very reason children come to CE - to learn more about the world, and see what contribution they can make. Elaine Scheinolling, a 15-year-old editor and former reporter tells it this way. ''Children's Express doesn't take away from your childness so much as it adds an outlet for a natural desire to be useful, to do real things, and to take responsibility.''