Tuesday, May 13, 1997
Kids who get help
won't get headlines

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Well, this is not news, and you can't make me say it is.

Jerry Springer, a television sleaze artist, is news. O.J. Simpson is news. The entire cast of Melrose Place is news. Rick Pitino, a basketball coach, is news. The salary of Seinfeld's Elaine, Kramer and George is news.

But Toresa Jenkins is not news. There is simply not enough sex, violence or money in her story to qualify.

She just shows up for work every day at 7:30 a.m. and stays until 4:30 p.m., rescuing children who might otherwise never learn to read. She takes on youngsters who are sometimes so disruptive that, theoretically, they may prevent someone else from learning to read. She does this for the grand sum of $7,945 per year in cash and an educational grant of $4,725.

Caring and firmness

She'd like to finish college and get a teaching certificate, I guess, so she can start to rake in the really big bucks. The 30-something mother of two says she does this because she cares about children. I believe her, but I am not sure that David does. (I made up his name. We were not formally introduced.)

The first-grader, an adorable kid who can't count or read as well as he should, is hunched miserably on a little chair at a table in the hallway at St. Francis Seraph School in Over-the-Rhine. His tutor is merciless. She pushes. He squirms.

I would be hugging him by now, ruffling his hair, patting his shoulder. He's trying, I think.

Not good enough, is her attitude.

Toresa, who tutors four kids a year, says some of her students become so attached that they want to go home with her. She told me she has one student, however, who sees her as a person "put on this Earth to badger him." I am guessing this is the one.

"I want him to do what I know he can. I am going to make him think," she says. "I am really strict. And I want him to succeed. I look at these little kids and think, 'Now's our chance.' "

It makes no sense to her, she says, that people are so lenient with first-graders, then five years later when they misbehave, "they want to put them in jail." She also wonders why we are so willing to spend money on adult prisoners and so stingy about, as she puts it, "making an investment at the front end, with kids."

Getting things done

In Cincinnati, 10 women and one man have each pledged 1,700 hours of service for the year as part of a local AmeriCorps Program called Getting Things Done II, directed by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. They work at three inner-city schools, one neighborhood center and one day-care center. Besides tutoring kids who aren't making it - the polite word is "at risk" - they stay after school for Homework Club.

You'd be surprised to know how many kids voluntarily join this club, and some are excellent students. Maybe it's a quieter place to study than they could find at home. Maybe they just like to hang out with somebody like Toresa.

Theresa Homan Seavey, who works for the Sisters of Notre Dame, says this is a story that "I thought everyone in town would want. They don't. I've been sending out news releases all year. I really thought everyone would be breaking their necks for photos and stories." She tells me that the AmeriCorps workers also stay after school and coach sports teams and drill teams. They cooked a Thanksgiving dinner for their tutor kids and their families. They helped all the day-care kids make valentines. They got their drill team kids in the Findlay Market Opening Day Parade. One of their basketball teams won a city trophy.

"But, you know, the real story," she says, "is that they're here. Working on the multiplication facts. Giving a thumbs-up for a 100 on a spelling test. A hug when someone's name has been off the board all week because the homework has been handed in and is complete."

Then she has the gall to ask, "Can you not spare one column to tell about these volunteers and their kids?"

Listen, Theresa Homan Seavey, this is not how it works. Now, if one of these kids, say, one who doesn't get help from somebody like Toresa, robs a bank or shoots somebody, give us a call.

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 (91.7 MHz) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.