Turning Lives Around

While Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress were debating how much to cut from welfare and other social programs, a group in Brooklyn was holding a ''testimonial'' breakfast about some of those same programs.

In a YWCA basement, Essa Abed, chairman of the Coalition of Brooklyn Preventive Service Directors, gathered local politicians, philanthropists, social service directors, and users of the services. His aim: a kind of morale booster, since the organizations are trying to absorb federal, state, and city budget cuts. At the end of the three-hour program, Mr. Gingrich might have been moved.

There was Theresa Price, a Haitian woman, who turned to the Flatbush Haitian Center after she became addicted to drugs. Theresa, a shy victim of child abuse, had low self-esteem. After learning from social workers, she turned her life around. She proudly told the gathering that she had been drug-free for 18 months and was an intern in college. ''Now I try to be a role model,'' she said.

Michele Westerbelt told how her husband had started to abuse her. When her 10-year-old son started to ''act up'' to his sister, she knew she had to act. She went to ''Safe Homes,'' a shelter, for counseling. She ultimately got a job, and now has hope that her son will not turn out to be violent.

Reginer Spann brought her son, Kenyan Thompson, with her. Kenyan, a lean 6-footer, said he had been attracted to the streets and started using drugs with friends. With help from the Child Development Support Corporation, Ms. Spann started to win him back. Now, Kenyan says he wants to put the streets behind him. ''I want to own my own business,'' he announced.

Finally there was Patricia Fullerton, now a Sanitation Department worker. After her husband left her and her four children 10 years ago, Ms. Fullerton gave up hope for herself. She ended up at the Salvation Army, where she started back on the road to self-sufficiency. ''Now I know I'm going to make it,'' she said proudly, smoothing her Sanitation uniform.

A common theme of the program was the power of hope, a realization not lost on Brooklyn Judge Gloria Dabiri. She wearied of watching young black and Hispanic men show up at her court for sentencing. She wanted to reach children before they gave up on themselves and succumbed to the lure of the streets. She started a mentoring program. This fall, Judge Dabiri's program matched up 26 children with 26 black or Hispanic lawyers. The lawyers try to spend a few hours a week with the children. When the children first arrive they are shy and withdrawn. By program's end, they see that there is a future other than living in poverty.

What the testimonials showed, Mr. Abed said, is that such organizations are not just a bunch of bureaucrats making a living off social programs. Instead, said Abed, who is also director of the Graham-Windham Neighborhood Family Service, ''we look at people as people with possibilities, not problems. We're unfolding the good in people's lives.'' It's a great concept and one that was accepted by the dozen politicians in the audience. However, most of them were Brooklyn Democrats, who agree that it makes sense to take care of small problems before they become major problems.

It's been said many times, but it's still true: It makes more sense and it is cheaper to spend the money on the Kenyans of the world now, rather than later when they're doing time. Perhaps Abed should ''take the show on the road,'' as they say, giving congressional leaders a taste of the possibilities - not the problems.

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