'Stand for Children' - Can a Weekend Rally Make a Difference?

Early Saturday morning, several hundred thousand people - parents, children, teachers, clergy, family advocates - will begin gathering in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington for an unusual event: the first Stand for Children day. Organized by the Children's Defense Fund, the nonpartisan rally is being promoted as "the most massive and uplifting day for children in our country's history."

Operating on the premise that "America's children are in trouble," leaders are encouraging families to come to the nation's capital to "send the right message" to Congress. No politicians will speak. Instead, "celebrity presenters" will introduce "real people" who will tell "real stories about how they are working to improve children's lives."

Activities will include a march with thousands of children, an interfaith service, and a 2,000-voice children's choir. Speakers will challenge employers, government, and community leaders to help families and improve the quality of children's lives.

Stand for Children is the idea of Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund. Reeling off statistics about the increasing vulnerability of children - poverty and violence that shorten lives and stunt dreams - she says, "It is time to ask the moral question: Does America truly value children?"

Mrs. Edelman is to children what the late Sen. Claude Pepper was to older Americans - a tireless, visible, relentlessly vocal advocate. But Senator Pepper, a Democrat from Florida, represented people who can vote - who collectively hold massive political power. The children in Edelman's constituency depend completely on the efforts - and the largess - of others.

Her rally on Saturday is hardly the first large-scale effort to spotlight children's needs. In 1909 President Theodore Roosevelt convened the first White House Conference on Dependent Children. Each decade, other White House Conferences on Children and Youth followed, ending with the combative White House Conference on Families in 1980. The 1960 conference called for a "national attack" on teenage pregnancy and solutions to teen gang violence. The 1970 conference spoke darkly about the "deep and pervasive trouble" afflicting the American family.

Eight years ago another child-centered event, the Great American Family Tour, sought to make family issues central to the 1988 presidential campaign. Its organizers, Rep. Pat Schroeder (D) of Colorado and pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, bravely predicted that the tour would be "the first step toward bringing American family policy into the 20th century."

Over the years, other well-meaning children's advocates have convened blue-ribbon panels. The National Academy of Sciences reported that between 1983 and 1988, 22 commissions and government agencies had completed national reports on the status of children and families. One of the largest recent efforts came in 1991, when the National Commission on Children released a 515-page report. And last year the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development concluded a 10-year study on young adolescents by issuing a major report.

Yet for all the studies and recommendations labeled "Urgent," for all the lip service to the idea that "Children are our most precious resource," a huge challenge remains: how to get beyond rhetoric to action. Beset by differences in ideology and politics, and handcuffed by limited budgets, Americans seem as confused as ever about how to help children in need.

This weekend, it will take more than an uplifting one-day rally in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln, more than parental guides and training manuals to improve the collective well-being of the youngest Americans. But by excluding politicians and spotlighting just plain folks - real parents struggling with real challenges - Saturday's rally may put a face on issues too often dealt with as huge abstractions. American children can't help but benefit from this latest reminder of the nation's unfinished - and still urgent - social agenda.

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