Where I Learned My ABCs in Community Organizing

I agree with Terry McDonald. The executive director for St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County was asked recently about his agency’s plan to build a homeless shelter for teenage boys who want to attend high school. His response was to verbally slap his palm to his forehead.

“We should have done this a long time ago,” McDonald told Register-Guard reporter Maggie Vanoni. “In fact, I’m disappointed that we as a community … have not figured out this kind of solution before this.”

St. Vincent de Paul opened a youth house for teenage girls in south Eugene less than two months ago. Plans to build a similar house for boys in the Bethel area have drawn some opposition from neighbors. They have expressed concerns about increased crime and decreased property values.

The controversy took me back 35 years.

When my then-wife Karen and I were in our 20s, we served for two years as resident directors for a program called A Better Chance. This nationwide program accepts applications from high schoolers in economically disadvantaged areas. Those chosen are housed and educated in more affluent towns with more resources and opportunities.

Our ABC House was built on a corner lot in a tony part of Connecticut. We housed, tutored, and mentored six black or hispanic high school boys who had been raised in the rougher parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx. They weren’t homeless youth, but they came to us for a brighter future.

They stayed with local host families most weekends, but during the week they were under our charge. We provided what now is called wraparound care. Karen cooked their dinner five nights a week. We had a live-in tutor who kept their studies on track. It was my job to keep everything else in order.

Those were not easy years. Karen and I had a toddler and then also a newborn. I was enrolled in a challenging graduate program, while also building a small business. We were barely more than newlyweds, but we lived with six teenage boys who were testing our limits every day.

But one hassle we never had to deal with was unhappy neighbors. It was quite the opposite. Although some of our neighbors were rich and famous — celebrity chef and cookbook author Jacques Pepin lived a few doors down — our program was a source of pride to the community.

I wasn’t there when the program was starting out in 1970. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were people back then who had the same hesitations expressed in Bethel last week. We all say we want diversity, but when diversity moves in next door, things can look very different. I understand the concerns coming from Bethel, but I hope experience will settle most of that anxiety.

Our Connecticut program offered wraparound care. We benefited from broad community support. But our resident scholars were still teenage boys. More than once, I had to remind our boys that midnight basketball might disturb the neighbors.

Organizations like A Better Chance implemented a vision almost 50 years ago that McDonald admitted should have occurred to this community sooner. When surveying all the local lives that could benefit from intervention, the youngest lives offer the biggest payoff — and often at the lowest expense.

St. Vincent’s program will screen applicants in much the same way ABC did. It’s a double shame on our society that there are several teens in need of a home for every bed St. Vinnie’s will have available. Applicants will be screened to identify those with the greatest chance for success.

I haven’t stayed in touch with Andre, Danny, Harry, Josh, Nigel and Raphael— but I have no doubt that we shaped each others’ lives for the better. Those who demonstrate character and determination can benefit immensely from a challenge, paired with a well-placed boost. That boost can make a community proud.

It’s worked in Madison, Conn. for half a century. It’s working already in south Eugene. It can work in Bethel too.

I agree with McDonald. We should have done this a long time ago.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.