Sunday, December 16, 2001

Can-Do Kids

Calculating return on investment

        They are what is delicately known as “at-risk children.”

        They are at risk for doing drugs, at risk for dropping out of school. They are at risk for crime, both as criminals and victims. They walk the several blocks from their school to a squat building on Central Parkway at 12th Street in Over-the-Rhine. They step over trash — broken bottles, fast-food debris, cigarette butts — and sometimes the legs of men passed out in doorways. They pass crack houses, prostitutes and drug dealers. Some of the older girls tuck their heads down, ignoring rough propositions.

Hanging tough

        Their parents are struggling. Some with drug and alcohol addiction. Some simply with poverty and despair. Maybe they were once “at risk.” If so, they have realized their potential. The future is still uncertain for these children, about 50 of them, who do not, by the way, call themselves “at risk.”

        They call themselves the Can-Do Kids. And they make this walk five days a week after school. No one sends them. No one recruits them. “They come because they have a good time,” says Lee Schaefer of Volunteers of America, which runs the program. “And they tell each other about us.”

        David, 14, brings his sister, Darian. 8. The youngest child in the group is 5. David is the oldest. “He faces temptation,” Lee says. “A kid can make good money running a bag of drugs across a street. But David is hanging tough.”

        One attraction is food, a good meal every afternoon. “You can't talk to a man about God when he is hungry,” Lee says, quoting VOA founder Maud Booth. And you probably can't teach a kid much either. After they are fed, they learn.

        They have chores, responsibilities. They bring homework. They read. They do math. Sometimes they help each other. “We try to teach them they have something to offer,” Lee says. “It sounds corny, but we try to give them some dignity.”

A careless heart

        Three years ago, Lee ran a sporting-goods business and served on the VOA board. “I saw the financials but not the kids.” Then he started working directly with the children. “They'll just reach out and grab your heart if you're not careful.”

        He was careless and now works for the agency full time, raising money.

        He opens a photo album. “Look at this little guy.” A child stands with his feet apart, pants drooping, shirt carefully untucked, an exact replica of the drug dealer in the background.

        “You just want to give them better role models than that.” But the big thing, he says, is education. He is raising money right now for a charter school, The Maud Booth Academy. “We see what we can accomplish with two or three hours after school,” Lee says. “If we had them all day, the sky is the limit.”

        Some fear charter schools would siphon off the best students from public-school rosters. “We want the hardest cases,” Lee says, “the ones with the least chance.”

        And, of course, VOA will accept donations at 1063 Central Ave., Cincinnati, 45202. Forget David and Darian and the others. Calculate the return on your investment. Every at-risk kid who truly becomes a can-do kid is less likely to be a guest in publicly financed prisons, less likely to need assistance for housing, more likely to pay taxes and vote.

        Or, like Lee, you could do it simply for corny and careless reasons.

        E-mail Laura at or call 768-8393.


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