Carole Gist Conveys Unalloyed `Positivity'

Miss USA: Financed by cosmetics, but speaking unvarnished truth - a letter from Chicago

`POSITIVITY'' is a word in current use at the Eisenberg unit of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago, where Miss USA spoke last week. Some such goings-on are trumpeted by each day's press releases as they march across the news desk on their way to the wastebasket. The memo from the Boys & Girls Club of Chicago was the kind that gets tossed in the trash - and then bounces back for a second look.

On the intriguing side, it said that Miss USA, Carole Gist, would give a motivational talk about goal-setting, self-esteem, and coping with the pressures of becoming a young adult. She is the first black to hold the Miss USA title. She overcame the difficulties of a single-parent household to achieve in academics, athletics, and dance.

On the disconcerting side, her 20-city tour of Boys & Girls Clubs is a promotion of Procter & Gamble's Health and Beauty Care Division. P&G makes Vidal Sassoon and Cover Girl products, Prell, Bain de Soleil, Crest, Gleem, Secret, Clearasil, Scope, Old Spice, and Oil of Olay. Further, Gist once said that she gave up her volleyball scholarship so she wouldn't have to cut her nails.

When the time came for the real Carole Gist to stand up in front of 350 impressionable Chicago kids, would she be a beauty contestant pitching products to the poor? (Nationally, 29 percent of the members of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America come from families receiving public assistance; 66 percent from families earning under $15,000.) Or would she be a charismatic role model, inspiring them to overcome the disadvantages of their environment and to excel?

Eisenberg sits across the street from a sprawling public housing project. It's a neighborhood, a policewoman advises, where taxis aren't easy to find. The club is housed in an unappealing two-story brick box with aluminum-framed windows.

But spirits are high inside the building, which serves as a blank canvas on which to paint bright childhood memories. With its traditional after-school activities, its donated computer lab, its staff of enthusiastic adults, and its swarms of happy children, this branch of ``the club that beats the streets'' gives every impression of doing just that. Kids as young as six can join for $3 a year.

Monica Shaw, a sophomore at the University of Illinois, blazes with positivity (her word) when she talks of becoming a lawyer and entering politics. Ms. Shaw virtually grew up at a Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago branch. Like Gist, Shaw is black and from a single-parent home. As the club's outstanding youth for Illinois, Shaw had been introduced to Gist once before. Last week she came to Eisenberg to hear Gist again.

Draped in her Miss USA sash, Gist was the picture of glamour as she entered the club's well-worn auditorium and faced the squirming teens packed onto metal folding chairs. The moment had come for inspiration or exploitation.

Gist, who stands six feet tall even without the heels she wore that day, seemed uncomfortable with her towering vantage point on stage. When the lectern was found to lack a microphone, she readily came down and stood in the center isle.

She told of growing up with emotional and physical abuse. She admitted going through a destructive phase before choosing to change for the better.

You are special, she said, looking around her at the now-quiet teens. You are somebody. Love who you are. Listen to your heart. Find that dream. Be prepared. We have to learn to give ourselves our own advantages. Learn all there is to know.

You are a winner in any situation as long as you try, Gist ended. It was simple and heartfelt, and cosmetics weren't mentioned. Gist took a few questions, accepted a gift of a sweatsuit, autographed a stack of 8-by-10 glossies, and departed. Behind her remained an atmosphere of ... of positivity.

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