Going to bat forlow-income children

Janis Dumas, a social worker with years of volunteer and professional experience, extended her caring heart to her own neighborhood 10 years ago.

Rather than moving out or ignoring the low-income immigrants who suddenly flooded Dallas's affluent northern suburbs (see story), she got busy.

Churches in the area formed the nonprofit Neighborhood Service Council (NSC). Mrs. Dumas signed on as a volunteer, and then as NSC's executive director.

"We had a major problem," she says of the rising crime and poverty, "but I felt that if any community could deal with it, we could."

Don Scharringhausen, an NSC board member, says Dumas believes strongly in a fresh approach to social service work.

"I think she's found [the right] way," Mr. Scharringhausen says. "It's not to count numbers, not to be under the government's thumb about how many kids you take care of today. We count results. If we see a need the children have, we develop a program and try it on a trial basis. When it works, we implement it."

The upshot, sometimes in collaboration with other groups, has been the creation of after-school and summer camps, medical and nutrition services, soccer leagues, crime-prevention programs, parenting education, summer lunches, an apartment-managers association, and English classes.

On a shoestring budget ($122,000 for 12,000 program registrations in 1999), the NSC has marshalled hundreds of volunteers to help low-income children .

Dumas likes it that way.

"In my mind, throwing money at problems doesn't work," she says. "But when you get people involved and invested in their community, it's almost like miracles can happen."

Dumas is fond of saying the key to success is "thinking smarter," and one focus of this has been Cottonwood Park, located in the middle of the area's apartment buildings.

To drive off gangs and drug dealers, the service council brought a host of children's activities to the property. Then, when ethnic tensions grew among the children, the council created a soccer league that insisted on multicultural teams.

"Children would come out the first year and say, 'I don't want to play with him,' " Dumas recalls. "We'd say, 'I'm sorry, but that's who's on your team.' By the time you get a game or two under your belt, you're looking at things differently."

Low-income children, who haven't been exposed to much, may resist trying new things. "Very often when they don't know how to do something, they say they don't want to do it," Dumas says.

It takes only one eager youngster to turn the tide.

Dumas remembers the impact a boy had at summer camp when a counselor tried to teach juggling to a group that included Hispanics, Asians, blacks, and Kurds. Almost everybody rolled his or her eyes, resisting this "uncool" idea. "Then this little Chinese boy stepped out and said, 'I love to juggle,' " she recalls. "Well, if he could juggle, do you think those other groups were going to say, 'We don't know how to do this or don't like it'? Before the end of the summer, we had 50 kids juggling."

Although Dumas wears a number of hats, including fundraiser and administrator, working directly with the children is her main interest.

"She really knows each and every child and knows their needs individually," says Shirley Schwaller, a council board member. "Janis really gets in there and learns about the various cultures."

Particularly impressive to Mrs. Schwaller is how Dumas has worked to understand Kurdish children, who sometimes don't mix well with other groups. Despite the Kurds' separatist tendencies, Dumas has a way of folding them into the various programs.

Schwaller is struck by Dumas's insistence that low-income kids not be treated as have-nots. She recalls an interaction arranged between neighborhood children and upper-income youths from overseas, who were visiting Dallas as part of an exchange program.

Dumas insisted on it being a true exchange, and made sure the neighborhood children gave presents to the visitors from privileged backgrounds.

"It was very important to Janis that her children not feel deprived," Schwaller relates. "I really respect that in her."

"As you work with her," says Oliver Axtell, a longtime volunteer, "you realize she has a profound understanding of the people we serve and a great appreciation of low-income families."

Although the NSC deals directly with children, their parents are expected to stay in the loop. Collaboration, whether with police or the parks and recreation department, is a central component to Dumas's low-budget operation.

"Janis has made the Neighborhood Service Council a catalyst," Mr. Scharringhausen explains. "When we need something done, we get on the phone and talk to the people who can get it done."

"Part of the strength of the whole community is that almost everyone has some religious belief that they practice," Dumas says. This is a huge plus, in her estimation - one the children should recognize.

"She doesn't want proselytizing, but she's faith-based and likes the children to know about other religions," Schwaller says.

"They need to understand that there is a religious community here," Dumas says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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