Ups and Downs of Youth Services

NATIONAL youth service was a centerpiece of the Clinton presidential campaign. Crowds cheered when the candidate spoke about creating a ``domestic Peace Corps'' in which young people could earn scholarships for higher education while learning to work together and rebuild American communities.

During the campaign, Clinton proclaimed Boston's City Year, a five-year-old service program, the model for his national plan. City Year employs 17- to 22-year-olds for nine months of community service, offering a weekly stipend of $100 and a grant of $5,000 to those who complete the program.

In September, a scaled-back version of Clinton's grand scheme for youth service was passed by Congress, and City Year is now helping lead the way into this new era of service. Yet long before the program entered the national spotlight, Suzanne Goldsmith joined one of the corporate-sponsored City Year teams and set out to write a book about the experience. The project turned into a valuable report on the precursor to a national movement.

``A City Year: On the Streets and In the Neighborhoods With Twelve Young Community Service Volunteers'' benefits from Goldsmith's strong storytelling skills. Her cast of characters is drawn from a diverse group of team members, each of whom brings a unique life story and a lesson for the idealistic cause of national service.

The defining feature of City Year is its emphasis on racial and economic diversity. Goldsmith indicates how this affects every aspect of the program. She describes the scene when team leaders are selecting groups, trading people back and forth to get the right mix of rich and poor, white and minority members.

A black staff member walks in and asks: ``What's this, the slave trade?'' Yet this only hints at the racial tensions that will arise once the teams begin the arduous process of working together.

Goldsmith observes one of the most contentious teams. Charles, a dropout and drug dealer, joins City Year straight out of jail. Jackie just left boarding school and is bound for college. The group is a mix of black, white, Hispanic, Asian, rich, and poor.

Just a month after the team is formed, one member, 21-year-old Tyrone, is shot and killed outside his home in one of Boston's poor black neighborhoods. This loss ``disrupted the process of bonding and resulted in teamwide depression,'' Goldsmith writes.

Only half of Goldsmith's original team members finished the program, although City Year's overall completion rate is much higher. Nevertheless, they accomplished such constructive tasks as cleaning up a community playground, helping the elderly, and working as teachers' aides in an elementary school.

This book gets beyond lofty talk about the idealistic goals of service. It's a ground-level look at the practicalities of making a service program work.

The most informative section comes at the end. Nearly two years after their ``city year'' together, Goldsmith searched out her teammates and talked to them about their lives and the impact City Year had on them. Some spoke of overcoming stereotypes and gaining a desire to serve their community. But others pointed out shortcomings in the program.

A black female graduate noticed that many of the African-American males failed to finish the year. ``That made me start thinking: What type of person is City Year best for?'' she says. ``They need to draw a line and realize there's some people they can work with and some people they can't.'' Such realism and honest assessment are valuable for a fledging movement.

``The Kindness of Strangers: Adult Mentors, Urban Youth, and the New Voluntarism,'' by Marc Freedman, takes a similarly realistic view of another service movement catching on throughout the United States: mentoring.

In programs fashioned after the Big Brothers/Big Sisters concept, middle-class or affluent adults are reaching out to help needy young people. The goal is to provide role models and support for positive development.

The early chapters of Freedman's book are marred by heavy academic language. Details about the historic development of the mentoring movement are tedious.

But toward the middle of the book, things change dramatically as Freedman begins to discuss aspects of mentoring that are often ignored. ``Mentoring is hard work, a reality rarely conveyed amid all the fervor surrounding this movement'' he writes.

As one mentor puts it: ``Those who expect to waltz in and transform lives will be in for a shock.''

Freedman acknowledges that ``while some youth clearly benefit from mentoring ... the research record is mixed.'' Class divisions are often impossible to overcome, and Freedman estimates that half of all relationships never take hold. He argues that most mentoring programs are falling short of their potential because they lack infrastructure and follow-up. In the long run, the author says, these programs would benefit from marketing themselves honestly. ``Mentoring is mostly about small victories and subtle changes,'' he writes.

Movements often take on a life of their own, and enthusiasm for a positive idea is easily sustained. But those involved in the national-service and mentoring movements would be wise to listen to what these two books have to say.

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