Volunteer effort has hurdles despite leaps

At least 15 million children in the United States live in poverty — without stable homes, nurturing caregivers or adequate health care. Such a plight deserves new and effective solutions. A year ago this week, at President Clinton’s Summit for America’s Future, government leaders and celebrities promoted national volunteerism as a solution. They said volunteers could help millions of children find mentors, health care, job training and community service opportunities by the year 2000. America’s Promise — the Alliance for Youth — formed to coordinate this idealistic program. One year is not enough to evaluate the effectiveness of the program because much of the movement remains in its planning stage. However, it’s clear that long-standing social problems cannot be eradicated by volunteerism alone.
In retrospect, the volunteer campaign has succeeded in many ways. Retired Gen. Colin Powell, head of America’s Promise, insists that it encourages people, corporations and nonprofit organizations to take charge of their communities. For instance, the number of mentors increased by 22 percent for the national Big Brothers and Big Sisters program. This summer, the city of St. Paul and H.B. Fuller Co. will help establish a phone service for youths. The service will help youths find mentors, jobs and recreational activities. In Philadelphia, corporations have donated $1.4 million to the community. Also since the summit, the city has already provided 20,598 children with after-school programs. These results certainly indicate a promising start. Supporters expect faster progress in the months ahead.
Gen. Powell’s volunteer movement, however, has flaws that cannot be overlooked. While the number of volunteers has risen significantly, the quality has not. Skilled mentors, tutors and coaches are needed so that the campaign’s goals for youth are met. Instead, volunteer efforts seem to focus on other areas. In Philadelphia, only 10 percent of the 120,000 youths who were promised mentors actually were given one. Most of the 93 million Americans who claim to be volunteers paint houses, usher in churches and write out checks — philanthropic efforts that do not demand much commitment. Mentoring and tutoring requires far more time and effort. In addition, many volunteers who are willing to get involved in these programs are improperly trained, overworked or assigned menial tasks. Poor management, in fact, discourages some volunteers who feel that their time is being wasted. Stronger leadership roles and incentives such as tax breaks might encourage more substantial volunteer efforts with youth.
Clearly, welfare reform and government spending cuts make it necessary to enlist community service for the nation’s social programs. Powell and other organizers should be lauded for their initiative and accomplishments. But trends show they cannot recruit enough qualified mentors for troubled youths — the most significant goal of the summit. While the campaign is not simple rhetoric as critics claim, it is also not enough to eliminate America’s social ills. The plight of disadvantaged children is much too serious to be left up to volunteers and corporate philanthropists. National volunteerism is a complement, not a substitute, of dwindling government programs.