Thursday, December 12, 1996
River village has lesson for city slickers

The Cincinnati Enquirer

You're probably sick of hearing about villages and children and how it takes a whole one to raise them. But I was at an actual village, and I think I know how it's supposed to work now.

The village is New Richmond, about 16 miles east of downtown Cincinnati. I am meeting a friend there who wants to tell me about a new club for kids. His directions are fussier than they need to be. Really, you just drive out U.S. 52 and turn right at the SuperAmerica station.

You stand more chance of hitting a deer on your way than a traffic light. I saw two does as I drove along the river. They saw me, too, and veered, apparently preferring to be hood ornaments on a more expensive car.

New Richmond is tiny - 2,408 people, nearly all white. More than a fifth of its children live in poverty, nearly a third with one parent. A high-rise is three stories.

My friend meets me outside Joe's Place on Front Street. Joe is long gone, but Ellie comes to our table and obligingly stuffs a wad of napkin under the table leg to keep it from bobbing while we tuck into white chili, a specialty of the house.

Like Joe's, the chili is not for sissies.

Big-city problems

Across from Joe's is the river and its floodwall, a place where kids hang out. There's not much else to do. That's the problem.

''Teen pregnancy is significant here,'' he tells me. ''I don't have the figures, but there are four (pregnant) girls on one softball team.'' And if you ask kids in New Richmond about drugs, they'll say they know where to find them. Guns, too.

The point is, he says, that inner-city problems can make their way into small towns. And you have to do something before things get out of hand. Who? ''You. Me. Everybody.''

Some parents - about 30 or 40 moms and dads - got the idea of a club for kids ages 6-18. Now here's the part I really like: Parents worked with village officials, who worked with school officials, who worked with county officials, who worked with state officials.

Scrounging money

Everybody pitched in, from volunteer Cathy Ariapad, who headed up a mail campaign because she ''just wanted to do something for my community, something for the kids,'' to State Rep. Rose Vesper, who says ''it's a signal that our children are important to us,'' to favorite son and former Reds first baseman Todd Benzinger, who shows up every time they tell him they need a celebrity draw.

They scrounged grant money and private donations and corporate gifts. It took about 2 1/2 years of meetings and missed meals and licking envelopes. Their single mission was to take care of kids - mostly not their own.

''For whatever reason - two working parents, a single parent - a lot of kids are unsupervised after school,'' says Jim Ferris, first board president of the Boys and Girls Club of the New Richmond Area. ''Maybe some parents will use us as a day-care center. We don't care. We want kids to be safe and to have a place to come. No questions asked.''

The recreational facilities are modest - foosball and ping pong tables for now - but they're putting backboards in the gym. A volleyball net is next. Open from 3 to 7 p.m. on schooldays, the club will offer some weekend activities as well. The official opening is Saturday. Todd Benzinger will be there. Again.

The community center, the old high school on Market Street, is home to the club. It's a wonderful building. Big. Solid. Like all vintage schools, it looks like a place where important work is being done.

Greg Minor, the executive director who came here from Indiana, has been signing up members. By Saturday, he hopes to have 100 customers. It costs $5 a year to join. If a kid doesn't have the money, he or she can work it off. Everybody is welcome. Anybody's kids.

The people I talked to would probably like for you to know that they could use more computers, books, basketballs and art supplies. Think of yourself as a temporary citizen of a town that decided to take care of its children.

No questions asked.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.