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A Johnny Appleseed For the Schools
Olive Chase was surfing the Internet when she stumbled onto Project Appleseed's website and clicked on its Parental Involvement Pledge.
"As parents, we are the owners of the public school system," the pledge read. "As owners, we bear a responsibility to participate in the system." The form asked the signer to promise to volunteer a minimum of ten hours in her child's school each year.
Chase, a council member at her son's Cape Cod elementary school, had been trying to get more parents involved. The council passed around the pledge and 200 of the school's 350 families signed on.
"The response was electrifying," she says. "We landscaped a courtyard, dramatically raised our enrichment-program fund-raising, and had thirty different parents who helped in classrooms at any given time. I don't think any of it would have happened without that pledge."
Project Appleseed, created by Kevin Walker, a former political organizer, is a nonprofit, Internet-based effort to build an army of public-school parent activists who will do everything from scrubbing school bathrooms to reshaping education policies. Walker a father of four (three teenagers and a 10 year old), runs the organization he founded in 1993 from St. Louis, where he maintains the website, distributes pledges (3 million to nearly 2,000 school so far), dispenses on-line advice about how parents can plug in to their schools, and consults with grassroots parent groups around the country.
We're trying to get parents to do a better job of getting involved," he says, "and schools to do a better job of welcoming them." Walker, who spends three to four hours a week working in his own kids' schools, says he ultimately hopes to mobilize a cadre of parents that will not only reenergize local schools, but influence education policies at district, state and even national levels.
"We want to have five million parents taking the pledge by this spring," he says. Like many of Walker's ambitions, that may sound quixotic. But never underestimate the power of an impassioned parent - just ask Olive Chase.
How You Can Help: Website: www.projectappleseed.org, E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org.
An Ace Who Scores for Kids
When Andre Agassi blew off the 1998 Davis Cup semifinals to party in Las Vegas with the likes of Robin Williams, Stevie Nicks and Amy Grant, it might have seemed like just another me-first move by a bratty tennis star. It wasn't.
"I've got a commitment that's too important," Agassi explained to the press. After all, this was no fly-by-night charity gig, but the fourth annual Grand Slam for Kids, the keystone fund-raiser for the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation, which he founded in 1994. (Last year's extravaganza pulled in a staggering $3.9 million.) The foundation, which helps children in and around his native Las Vegas, has built a Boys and Girls Club (including a library, a computer room, and basketball and tennis courts); created a school within a shelter for abused children; and provides new school clothes each year for more than 3,000 kids.
"I want to allow as many kids as possible to live their dreams, just as I was lucky enough to be able to live mine,: says the onetime teen phenom. "I think affecting a child's life is the greatest way to make a difference in the world."
Agassi is very hands-on , helping to select funding recipients, recruiting stars for the annual benefit, and personally bankrolling all of the foundation's administrative costs. "That way, donors know that every penny is going to help children," he says. And he has no intention of slowing down - even if it does mean missing the occasional tennis match. As the man said, this commitment is just too important.
How You Can Help: The Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation, 3960 Howard Hughes Parkway, Suite 750, Las Vegas, NV 89109, Phone: 702-227-5700,
When Barbara Boxer first ran for public office in the early 1970s, she was rebuked by her opponents for neglecting her children, then 7 and 5. Since then - over the course of a political career that includes ten years in the House of Representatives and eight in her current post as a U.S. Senator - the feisty California Democrat has been accused of many things, but neglecting children is not one of them. In fact, she's built a reputation as one of Capitol Hill's staunchest advocates for children and families across the country.
Thanks to Boxer, the Safe Drinking Water Act was strengthened in 1996 to better protect children and pregnant women. (She's now championing the Children's Environmental Protection Act, which would apply similar child-friendly standards to a broad array of health hazards.) Because of her tax-incentive legislation, corporations now donate hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of computers and software to schools that need them. And as a result of her efforts, the administration allocated $200 million to expanding after-school programs last year.
Boxer has also sponsored a raft of measures aimed at curbing gun violence; They include an investigation of gun-industry marketing campaigns targeting young people; a ban on all sales, deliveries, and transfers of guns to kids under 18, as well as on the sale or transfer of a firearm to someone who is intoxicated; and a mandate that every handgun sold include a child-safety lock. Though these initiatives remain bottled up in Congress (some in the deadlocked Juvenile Justice Bill), Boxer vows to continue the fight.
"I want my four-year-old grandson and every other child to grow up safe and secure," she says. "We lose thirteen kids a day to guns. That's shocking. And it's something that all of us - politicians and parents alike - have an obligation to do something about."
How You Can Help: Barbara Boxer, Senate Office, 112 Hart Senate Building, Washington, DC 20510, Phone: 202-224-3553, Website: http://www.boxer.senate.gov/.
If you remember fighting with your brother or sister over toys - or sometimes get sent 'round the bend by your own children's bickering - Lynn Price wants you to stop and appreciate something she didn't have when she was growing up; the company of a sibling.
Price and her older sister, Andi Andree, were placed in separate foster-care homes as babies; they remained virtual strangers until their college years. "We almost missed out completely on one of the most important relationships a person can have," says Price, who, like Andree, now has three kids of her own.
Of the more than 325,000 siblings who are currently in foster care, an estimated 75 percent are separated. But thanks to the reunited sisters, about 100 of them have the chance to spend a week with their brothers or sisters each year at Camp to Belong, a free, volunteer-run summer program based in Colorado that was founded by Price in 1995 (Andree came on as Camp Director in 1997).
The visitors, who come from around the country and range in age from 7 to 19, enjoy traditional camp activities, such as swimming and horseback riding (and sewing - each child creates a special pillow for his or her sibling). Most of all, they're given a chance to create or reinforce a bond that will last a lifetime.
Price says she'd like to establish a permanent, year-round home for the camp, as well as start to build greater awareness of the problem.
"Placing siblings together is difficult, but I think we can do a better job of it," she says. "My dream is that someday we won't need to have a camp at all."
How You Can Help: Camp to Belong, 10035 Keenan Street, Highlands Ranch, CO 80126, Phone: 888-723-5664, Website: www.kacweb.com/ctb
One day in 1987, Nancye Gaj, a trainer of literacy teachers in North Carolina, was poring through student questionnaires to help her instructors plan their classes. She noticed a pattern: When asked to describe their reasons for enrolling in a literacy program, many of the community-college students had written, "to read to my children" or "to read to my grandchildren."
Almost without thinking, Gaj glanced up at her then 2-year-old son's budding artwork and scribbles that were pinned to the back of her office door. She though of the hours they'd spent together with books, and suddenly she realized; if you want to teach a mother to read, why not teach her to read to her children?
Several months later, she quit her job, networked like crazy, and dashed off grant proposals. Soon she was commuting to a Raleigh prison, teaching ten semi-literate mothers to read Horton Hears a Who, Love You Forever, and other children's books that they could share through audiotapes or during visits with their children. Not only did it improve the moms' reading skills, but, through in-depth discussions spawned from the books, also their self-esteem and parenting skills.
Today, Gaj's Motheread foundation has expanded to hospitals, libraries, churches, and social-service agencies in 29 states, serving 25,000 adults - no including fathers - each year. Through her efforts, she has played a key role in pioneering the once-radical, now widely imitated approach known as "family literacy."
Gaj sees the Motheread/Fatheread concept as "basically common sense. The key to literacy is motivation," she says, "and having a child you want the best for is powerful motivation."
How You Can Help: Motheread, 3924 Browning Place Suite 7, Raleigh, NC 27609, Phone: 919-781-2088, Website: www.motheread.com, E-Mail:email@example.com
A Fighter for Family Leave
At the culmination of the nine-year battle to pass the historic Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Donna Lenhoff did something, in her words, "pretty ironic": The bill's chief lobbyist and brand-new mother herself, she abandoned her maternity leave for ten days of round-the-clock vote-marshalling to ensure the bill's final passage. She left her own baby to guarantee that millions of American parents wouldn't have to leave theirs.
Lenhoff figures it was worth it. After all, her daughter, now 7, did fine in the care of her father and grandmother. Meanwhile, in its own seven year life span, the FMLA has helped an estimated 20 million workers take time off to care for a new child or seriously ill family member without fear of losing their jobs.
When she was staff attorney for the National Partnership for Women and Families formerly the Women's Legal Defense Fund, a Washington D.C. - based nonprofit advocacy group, Lenhoff drafted the original family-leave bill, brought together the coalition that pushed it forward and spearheaded the lobbying efforts for it on Capitol Hill. If the FMLA has a mother, it's Lenhoff.
And now, as general counsel, she remains a devoted parents: After working to ensure the law's implementation, she's leading the new campaign to provide some income to workers who take family leave. In several states, efforts are under way to explore the possibility of expanding unemployment insurance to family and medical leave.
"Too many people can't afford to miss paychecks, even when they're urgently needed at home," Lenhoff says. "The FMLA was an important step toward helping Americans balance work and family responsibilities, but it was only a first step. Now we need to go further."
How You Can Help: National Partnership for Women and Families, 1875 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 710, Washington, DC 20009, Phone: 202-986-2600, Website: http://www.nationalpartnership.org/, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org